Doctor Who had stopped being for children – and the powers-that-be thought it had become too violent. Producer Graham Williams was brought in and tasked with making a programme that was less violent, more funny – and, on top of that, cheap. Things started to go in a very different direction, especially when script editor Anthony Read took over from the Robert Holmes half way through the season. Although Williams is on record saying that they were aiming the show at the intelligent 15-year-old, there were many things that painted this season as a child’s show once more, including those much younger than 15. Horror of Fang Rock, the opening story, was scary but had those boys’ own adventure elements of a lighthouse and a shipwreck. The tale that followed it, The Invisible Enemy, was almost perfect child-friendly material.
It starts off with spacemen (spacemen!) pressing brightly coloured space-buttons before something creepy happens to them. They shoot other spacemen! They chase around a space-base! It goes on. Leela is doing school lessons! She repeats everything the Doctor says! The Doctor starts talking funny! And then… and then… the Doctor and Leela get cloned and shrunk and have to fight a strange monster inside the Doctor’s own body. And there’s A ROBOT DOG! For the children of 1977 this was something akin to family sci-fi movies or Irwin Allen series; fab, thrilling and fun.
The inclusion of K9 as a series regular was a masterstroke. What child didn’t dream of having either a cute pet or a friendly robot? K9 was both! He also came with some handy catchphrases – ‘affirmative, master’ might not be quite up there with ‘Exterminate’, but it was enough for the playground.
Image of the Fendahl came next. It seems entirely probable that if Image of the Fendahl had been a one-off drama or serial, unconnected with Doctor Who, it would now be spoken of in the same hushed, reverential, nostalgic tones as programmes such as The Stone Tape or Children of the Stones. Scientists meddling with forces they don’t understand, evil artefacts, hints of magic add up to some wonderful teatime melodrama. As Gary Gillatt eloquently argued in his DVD review (DWM 408), one fault that the story had was a reluctance to make the Doctor an integral part of it, but even if it wasn’t perfect Doctor Who, it was still able to send children scurrying behind sofas – in a good way.
The Sun Makers, with Robert Holmes’s dark humour not to mention attempted suicide, knife-wielding and Inland Revenue parallels, may not seem like ideal children’s material. But a lot of its violence was more cartoon-like than before – I firmly believe that when the rebels threw Gatherer Hade off the roof of Megropolis One, he landed, splat, like a pancake, then regained his previous shape and shook his fist at the sky before attempting another dastardly scheme. And children would surely be drawn to the Collector, a funny little creature brilliantly portrayed by the man that they usually saw teaming up with a cartoon called Charlie on Words and Pictures.
Season 15 has come in for some criticism over the years, and a fair amount of it is justified. But seen through the eyes of a child, it’s a wondrous thing. In a child’s imagination, that’s not a man shuffling around in a hilarious giant prawn costume, it’s the Nucleus of the Swarm engaging the Doctor in a deadly battle. That’s not a disused psychiatric hospital in Surrey, it’s the actual inside of the actual TARDIS, complete with swimming pool. Underworld may look on the surface like a beige nightmare against unconvincing backdrops, but… well, actually, Underworld is quite a difficult one to defend, but considering its production nightmares it would be like kicking a poorly puppy to criticise it too much. And it’s fun to spot the mythological puns and parallels. After all, there’s no denying that the quest is the quest.
Season 15 is a fairy tale, a pantomime. There are funny bits and scary bits (and the occasional dull bit in the middle). The scenery may sometimes look cheap and unconvincing, but everyone on the stage is giving it their all and the children love it. The baddies come to a sticky end. The hero talks to the audience about his problems (‘Not even the sonic screwdriver can get me out of this one.’ ‘Oh yes it can!’ ‘Oh no it can’t!’) Most tellingly of all, the heroine falls in love with someone she’s only just met and the couple vow to spend the rest of their lives together. It might seem an odd ending for a futuristic savage time-traveller, but for an audience who knew about Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, it was just perfect.
And they all lived happily ever after.
1. “I’m blind. Slay me now. It is the fate of the old and crippled.” Leela was told not to look back at the exploding Rutan ship, but she ignored the Doctor’s advice… Horror of Fang Rock Part Four
2. “Cut losses! Liquidate!” The Doctor destroys Pluto’s economy and the Collector reverts to his natural form – a poisonous fungus resembling sea kale with eyes. The Sun Makers Part Four
3. “My legs! I can’t move my legs!” The stuff of nightmares becomes reality as Leela, Martha and Tyler find themselves unable to run away – and there’s a fendahleen advancing on them. Image of the Fendahl Part Three
4. “No aliens are allowed in here. Get rid of her.” The Doctor has teamed up with aliens, become power crazy, seems obsessed with interior design and now he’s exiling Leela! Can this really be happening? The Invasion of Time Part Two