Series Twelve and Series Thirteen had been fun for all the family. Monsters for the children, horror for the grown-ups. Would Series Fourteen, still controlled by the outstanding team of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes, continue in that tradition? Well, maybe not entirely. While the stories were still superb, was this a season where things went a bit too far…? Mary Whitehouse, president of the National Viewers and Listeners’ Association certainly thought so, but then across her long career her targets ranged from A Clockwork Orange and Dennis Potter to Pinky and Perky and The Man from UNCLE, and how far her many and frequent objections were justified was a subject of wide debate.
Robert Homes himself stated that he wouldn’t let a child under ten watch the programme – thereby excluding the section of the audience that most delighted in running round the playground yelling ‘Exterminate!’ – and also claimed that he didn’t believe fantasy violence was at all damaging to children. But where is the line drawn that makes some violence ‘fantasy’? Children can pretend to shoot each other with pretend laser pistols and no harm is done (well, usually). But Series Fourteen featured someone having their head held underwater – it was in the fantasy world of the Matrix, but could have just as easily happened in a suburban swimming pool (this sequence was edited after Part Three’s first broadcast). It featured a future savage from a distant world who threatened people with a knife, attempted to stab them or throw the knife at them. Her victims might have included robots and a living ventriloquist’s dummy as well as humans, but similar knives could be found in most kitchen drawers. There are a lot of parts of Series Fourteen that would fall foul of the current BBC’s strictures on inimitable violence, as well as the guideline that states violence shouldn’t be condoned. The Doctor may at times criticise Leela, but he often seems happy with the results of her actions.
So, how to judge a series that is, on the one hand, by its own admission not aimed at young children any more, and on the other hand contains some of the best Doctor Who stories ever made? It’s tricky. But the question ‘why did the production team go so far?’ can be answered with ‘because they cared’. The people behind Series Fourteen were pushing the boundaries because they were determined to make a great show. Sarah Jane had been probably the most successful companion ever; so there must have been temptation to create a similar one when Elisabeth Sladen left the show. But no – it was time to experiment instead. The first ever story where the Doctor has no companions? Check. A controversial reimagining of Time Lord society? Check. A new companion who is unlike any who’ve gone before? Check. Leela was designed as positive companion who could handle things on her own and didn’t want to ask the Doctor what was going on or need his help; a savage who would help the audience understand the Doctor’s code as she challenged his pacifism and he had to justify his stance.
It’s also worth noting that the series reined itself in occasionally: during planning stages the deaths of both Sarah Jane and the Brigadier were serious possibilities, and the title The Day God Went Mad, which would probably have ruffled a few feathers, was changed to the less contention The Face of Evil. In the same story, Tom Baker refused to perform a scene where the Doctor threatens someone with a knife, and changed it instead to the Doctor bluffing that he could wreak havoc with a deadly jelly baby. The more debatable inclusions also have to be balanced against the brilliance that surrounds them – the glory versus the gory. The Masque of Mandragora’s torture can be weighed against its fascinating Renaissance intrigue and stunning locations. In The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Leela might inform the watching children of the best way to stab someone in the heart (strike under the breastbone), but her knife-wielding ways lead to one of Doctor Who’s most glorious scenes, as Professor Litefoot grapples with a joint of meat in order not to embarrass his guest. And of course, the rest of the story is full to the brim with sparkling dialogue, tension, humour, cleverness and thrills. The Robots of Death might feature blood, knife-throwing, mental breakdown, potentially deadly helium inhalation, (off-screen) strangulation and (on-screen) attempted strangulation, but it also has some of the greatest world-building, design and hats ever seen in the show.
There were reasons why Doctor Who would significantly change after this season – but it’s impossible to condemn a run of stories that is so rich in so many ways.
1. “But what if you’ve guessed wrong?” “When did I ever guess wrong about anything?” “Lots of times.” Sarah’s sadness as the Doctor rushes off into danger is very touching. The Masque of Mandragora Part Four.
2. “The scarlet and orange of the Prydonians, the green of the Arcalians, the heliotrope of the Patrexes…” Runcible the Fatuous sends hundred of children scurrying to their dictionaries. The Deadly Assassin Part One.
3. “It is a Laserson probe. It can punch a fist-sized hole in six-inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one.” D84 waxes poetical about a tool. The Robots of Death Part Three.
4. “Dramatic recitations, singing, tap-dancing. I can play the Trumpet Voluntary in a bowl of live goldfish.” The Doctor reveals unsuspected talents to Henry Gordon Jago. The Talons of Weng-Chiang Part Two.