Season 17 is an embarrassment. From Romana ridiculously trying on bodies at the very beginning – didn’t Douglas Adams know that regeneration is a serious business? – to Soldeed’s corpsing as he becomes a corpse at the end, this isn’t drama, it’s pantomime. This misguided direction overshadows any saving graces the stories might have. City of Death, for example, may look beautiful with all its location filming, but it’s full of Oxbridge undergraduate humour that might crease them up at student revues but has no place in a family show at Saturday teatime. In fact, the whole season is apparently supposed to be funny – except the biggest laughs are unintentional. There have been a few dodgy monster costumes in Doctor Who over the years, admittedly – a man in tights with a bull’s head is pretty much par for the cause – but then you come to Erato… The shame, the cringing, the horror of a child forced to witness this in the company of parents or older siblings. “This is your favourite show?” they scoff. “Thank goodness ITV’s started broadcasting again.” It’s not even scary! The only saving grace for this entire season is that Shada was cancelled. At least the term ‘Time Tots’ was never unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
On the other hand…
Season 17 is brilliant. Unashamedly hilarious from start to finish, it showcases Douglas Adams’s timeless humour. The dialogue sparkles – probably half the most quotable lines for the entire output of Doctor Who 1963-2011 can be found in the single story City of Death (It has a bouquet – more of a table wine – shall we take the lift or fly? – what a wonderful butler, he’s so violent – you’re a beautiful woman, probably – my dear, nobody could be as stupid as he seems – are you just in it for the thumping? – why is it that every time I start to talk to someone, you knock him unconscious? – it’s the Jagaroth who need all the chickens, is it? – I told him that was a mixed metaphor – And since it has no call to be here, the art lies in the fact that it is here – I suppose the best way to find out where you’ve come from is to find out where you’re going and then work backwards). And the humour can appeal to the entire family. While the mums and dads chuckle at the wordplay, the smallest children giggle at slapstick and the teenagers smile smugly to themselves as they spot references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. OK, so some of the monsters aren’t perfect, but then this is no multi-million feature film, it’s a TV show contending with tiny budgets and industrial action. The lack of money is made up for by a surfeit of imagination. Monsters that turn into drugs? A giant blob that crushes people to death when it tries to communicate with them? An endlessly shifting labyrinth that’s really a circuit? An alien splintered through time? These are clever ideas, and any shortcomings in realisation are overcome because Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are selling it all to the audience. However flippant the Doctor and Romana might be, however much they make fun of the bad guys, they are characters undermining the power of the villains with laughter, not actors laughing at the audience for investing in the story. It’s scary too – the cobwebbed Davros coming to life, or Scarlioni pulling off his mask to reveal Scaroth’s face, these are moments that children watched through their fingers. The only downside to this entire season is that Shada was cancelled, making the viewers miss out on so many funny lines and fascinating Time Lord facts.
Season 17 is loved by some and loathed by others. For many, it’s the pinnacle of the Graham Williams era, the combination of Tom Baker, Lalla Ward and Douglas Adams providing an intellectually stimulating and hilarious series of shows that were dramatically satisfying too. But then there’s the section of the audience that cringes at the jokes, are mortified by the monsters and rue the lack of serious scares. For them, the phrase ‘Graham Williams era’ acts like a swearword.
But love it or hate it, everyone has a definite opinion of it. It’s never bland and it’s never boring. This is a season stuffed full of character and the reason that opinions are polarised is because it doesn’t play safe, doesn’t give its audience unobjectionable mediocrity. This is a season that means no Doctor Who fan can go to Paris without running away from the Eiffel Tower calling ‘Bye, bye, Duggan!’ This is a season that fans in convention bars can argue about until the sun comes up. Whether you love or hate Season 17 for its stories and its attitude, surely you should love it for all of those things.
1. “Good heavens, that’s exactly right. Ha! I never realised you had such a sense of style.” Romana gets the Doctor’s approval by aping his dress sense. Destiny of the Daleks Episode One.
2. “Everest in Easy Stages. It’s in Tibetan!” Stuck in the pit, the Doctor turns to a book for advice on how to climb out. His Time Lord gifts deserting him, he turns to a second book, Teach Yourself Tibetan. The Creature from the Pit Part Two
3. “Interfere? Of course we should interfere. Always do what you’re best at, that’s what I say.” The Doctor sets out his philosophy of life. Nightmare of Eden Part One.
4. “It seemed such a small price to pay.” “It always does.” Sezom’s story gives a glimpse into the fate of worlds on which the Doctor doesn’t arrive to save the day. The Horns of Nimon Part Four