Thirteen: unlucky for some. But while season 13 was undoubtedly unlucky for many of the characters who appeared in it (oh Pyramids of Mars, couldn’t you have left at least one person alive?), viewers could count themselves very lucky indeed.
Although conceived as a children’s programme, Doctor Who was usually aimed at a family audience, something that adults and children could enjoy watching together. It wasn’t an easy balance to strike. Audience reaction reports over the years documented adults bemoaning ‘silliness’ while children wandered off bored whenever there were no monsters on screen. But together, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes were creating a perfect recipe to appeal right across the board. Hinchcliffe has said that he and Holmes decided to ‘fertilise’ Doctor Who by injecting it with rich themes borrowed from acknowledged classics; their decision definitely bore fruit.
Those science fiction classics – both literary and filmic – added new layers to the show. The first story of the season, Terror of the Zygons, had originally been intended to round off Season Twelve, but its Invasion of the Bodysnatchers vibe fitted in well with its new home. Planet of Evil offered a science-fiction take on horror staple Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Mummy movies inspired large chunks of Pyramids of Mars, and it was back to Invasion of the Bodysnatchers for The Android Invasion. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, often considered to be the first science-fiction novel, played a big role in The Brain of Morbius via many Universal and Hammer horror films. 1951’s The Thing from Another World probably lent several elements to The Seeds of Doom.
But having a striking central hook courtesy of the classics doesn’t guarantee success. The foundation was there, but it was how Hinchcliffe and Holmes developed the stories that made them classic Doctor Who as well. For the younger children, there were scary monsters – Zygons, mummies, Kraals, Morbius and Krynoids. There were no returning monsters in this season, now the new Doctor was firmly established; it was forging its own way forward, not relying on past glories – and apart, perhaps, from the Kraals, these were fabulous, memorable monsters. The villains, too, were memorable – astonishing and chilling creations such as Sutekh, Solon and Harrison Chase who were a triumph of both scripting and acting.
It wasn’t just monsters and villains, though. These multi-layered stories offered further chills for the older or more imaginative children – or the adults (and not just because one story was set in the Antarctic). They spoke to fears deep inside. How can you tell friends from enemies? How can you know who to trust? The horror of familiar faces suddenly turning against you, whether a shape-shifting Zygon or a Kraal duplicate, means that no one can feel safe. Laurence Scarman couldn’t believe his own brother had been taken over by an evil entity, a fact that led to his own demise. A staple of fiction dealing with possession is the appeal to the last vestige of the original person somewhere deep inside. In the previous season’s The Ark in Space, the Wirrn swarm leader still had a trace of Noah’s humanity and that saved the day. That trick didn’t work in Season 13 of Doctor Who. Faith and trust led to death and destruction.
Planet of Evil may have seemed more subtle, not as reliant on lumbering monsters or cackling villains, but its nightmarish qualities were just as strong. There can be few people who haven’t woken up from a terrifying dream where an unseen killer is picking people off one by one, or where they’re trying to escape from some horrifying situation but are dragged back towards it, or where a friend is transformed into a monster, or where attacking a monster causes it to multiply into a hundred more… These are ideas that linger long in the imagination.
So many other nightmares. People strapped down by opening Krynoid pods, treated as experimental subjects rather than sentient beings. Relentless, tireless mummies. Body parts harvested to house a maniac’s brain. A friend’s face falling off to reveal circuitry beneath. This was a programme that was taking itself seriously, and so audiences could do so too.
Add into the mix the wit of Robert Holmes that could elevate the humblest script, and some brilliant design work (the season as a whole looks beautiful but special mention must be made of the stunning Zeta Minor jungle sets), and you have a winning series. No one need be embarrassed about watching this show (well, just turn away when the Skarasen’s on screen), or be bored, or think it too silly. Its success on broadcast was probably helped by it being shown through the darkening days of autumn and winter (previous seasons had all been partly on air in spring or even summer), but its continued popularity is solely because it is, simply, brilliant.
1. “Here, boy. Fetch it! Fetch it!” The Doctor throws the Skarasen a titbit – its own signalling device – and sends it back home to Loch Ness. Terror of the Zygons Part Four.
2. “Nineteen-eighty, Sarah, if you want to get off.” The Doctor takes Sarah to a desolate future Earth to demonstrate what will happen if Sutekh the Destroyer isn’t stopped in 1911. Pyramids of Mars Part Two
3. “Take off the eye patch and look for yourself.” Astronaut Guy Crayford discovers that everything the Kraals told him was a lie – they didn’t rebuild him, and he still has both eyes. The Android Invasion Part Four
4. “You know, Doctor, I could play all day in my green cathedral.” Barmy botanist Harrison Chase takes ‘talking to plants’ to a new level as he treats the Doctor to a rendition of his Floriana Requiem. The Seeds of Doom Part Three