Season 18

“Entropy increases.” “There will be no future.”

The opening shot of Season 18 is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful shot in 49 years of Doctor Who (although I know a number of people who’d argue for the ‘Peri sitting up in bed’ shot in Planet of Fire instead). Beautiful – but sad. A beach outside holiday season is filled with memories of happier times: sun and sand and laughing children. So we see the Fourth Doctor and remember his huge grin, his joie de vivre, his playful silliness, from seasons past. Only a shadow remains.

New producer John Nathan Turner was a new broom sweeping away the remnants of the Graham Williams era, and the resulting gulf between seasons 17 and 18 is enormous. OK, so the leap from Season Six to Seven (black and white to colour. ‘Clown’ to ‘Dandy’. Rebel roaming the universe to part of the Earth establishment) was pretty major too, but this may well be the biggest change of direction since then. Except – the content isn’t really that different. It’s the presentation. The trappings. And the Doctor.

Why not try an experiment? Read a transcript of The Leisure Hive (which is, after all, by David Fisher, the writer responsible in whole or part for The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara, Creature from the Pit and City of Death). Imagine it with jolly Dudley Simpson music in the background, bookended by titles using the Delia Derbyshire theme and the diamond logo. Read the Doctor’s words with a laugh in the voice, and dress him in his old clothes complete with multi-coloured scarf. Remove the question marks from his collar. In your mind, give him a toothy grin and make sure Romana has a twinkle in her eye. Paint your imaginary scenery in browns and reds.

Now, compare this story in your mind with The Horns of Nimon. I suspect there won’t really be a lot of difference. (Perhaps a slightly easier method of comparison would just be to read David Fisher’s novelisation, which delights in its own silliness.) But on screen – oh my goodness, on screen – the stories are from different worlds.

Season 18 is gleaming white, shiny and new, with the starkness and sheen of an operating theatre – which is perhaps appropriate for a Doctor who seems increasingly moribund. And the season highlights this, driving the Doctor inexorably to his doom.

Not only does the Doctor himself seem tired now, but he is surrounded by a relentless parade of memento mori. The Leisure Hive seems almost cruel in retrospect – surrounded by those who are desperate to be made youthful again, the Doctor is aged almost to death. At any other time, the sight of the white-haired, bearded Doctor would be forgotten once he’s restored to health; this time it’s a presentiment of things to come.

In Meglos, the Doctor reassuringly claims “I’m a Time Lord, having lived in the future I can hardly die in the present” – but hold on, it isn’t the Doctor saying that but Meglos, who has taken the form of the Doctor. It’s false, it’s a lie, it underlines the opposite conclusion: the Doctor can die. Meglos himself dies – but an even worse omen than the death of a creature that had spent most of the story in the Doctor’s form is the death of Lexa, who so closely resembles the Doctor’s original companion Barbara Wright. She dies saving Romana – a clear case of out with the old and in with the new.

Full Circle to Warrior’s Gate is usually referred to as the ‘E-Space Trilogy’ but the stories have more in common than just the universe in which they’re set. Generation after generation have existed on Alzarius, never progressing. The Three Who Rule are in an endless living death – until their source of eternal life is destroyed and they crumble to the dust they should have been centuries before. Romana asks if the Doctor has a death wish shortly before his hand is withered by Time Winds. Later a banquet turns to dust and cobwebs around him. K9’s memory wafers crumble as his systems become instantly ancient. The Doctor doesn’t have a death wish – but the universe – both universes – seem to have it on his behalf.

Even when the TARDIS escapes E-Space the Doctor is treated to more ancients finally coming to an end. The Keeper of Traken is dying after a thousand years. (Keeper: “As you see, the passing ages have taken toll of me.” Doctor: “Yes, yes, I know that feeling.”) The Master, frozen for years as Melkur, can escape death only by stealing the life of others.

Then comes Logopolis. Now it is the universe itself that is dying, surrendering to entropy. And the Doctor knows from halfway through Part Two what the season has been telling him from the beginning – even a Time Lord can’t live forever, and his time is nearly up. He doesn’t die in battle; he saves the universe but then just… falls. Our larger-than-life hero lies helpless and vulnerable. Then – he dies.

But life goes on. The Doctor is dead, long live the Doctor. Whatever happens, Doctor Who, for us, will never die. No future? There’ll always be a future.

Memorable Moments

1. “Zastor is our leader, but he cannot lead us into sacrilege.” Lexa appears on screen and a million fans cry “Barbara!” in delight (and wonder where Ian is. And why she’s not wearing a cardigan). Meglos Part One.
2. “That’s not scientific understanding, it’s cold-blooded murder.” A chilling and powerful moment as the Doctor protests against the vivisection of a Marsh Child – and Romana, linked to the child, screams. Full Circle Part Three.
3. “I have failed you, Melkur, but spare my husband, I beg of you. You have promised.” Whose wizened claw is that? And from where are they watching Kassia – some kind of ship…? The Keeper of Traken Part Two
4. “I can’t see Traken. I can’t even see Metulla Orionsis.” Nyssa realises she has lost not only her stepmother and her father, but her entire world and everything she’s ever known. Logopolis Part Four