Season 20

Very few Doctor Who seasons end up as originally planned. Stories turn out to be unworkable for one reason or another – too costly to make, change of direction or production team, pay disputes or strikes, loss of an actor, or simply an eventual decision that the idea just doesn’t work. These roads not taken may have sent Doctor Who off in very different directions – could the series have lived down The Prison in Space (‘Carry-on’-style antics with a misogynistic Doctor and Jamie smacking Zoe’s bottom) any more than it could have endured the Second Doctor blacking up, as had been an early plan? What if Roger Delgado’s tragic death hadn’t led to the abandonment of The Final Game, the story that would have not only killed off the Master, but revealed that he and the Doctor were either brothers or two aspects of the same being? Mostly, however, the results would just have been tiny ripples – a story substituted for one perhaps slightly better or slightly worse. In Season 20, Turlough’s introductory story was originally planned as The Song of the Space Whale, but this was abandoned due to disagreements between writer and script editor, and the season was to end with The Return, featuring Davros and the Daleks – postponed due to strike action and finally to appear next season as Resurrection of the Daleks. Just ripples. Except… the removal of those stories meant there were suddenly no monsters. Doctor Who is about monsters! Children shuffle along shouting ‘Exterminate!’ Viewers reminisce about ‘the one with maggots’ or ‘the one with the potato-heads’. The nervous have nightmares about Cybermen. No monsters – and in the anniversary season! Disaster!

(‘But… but…’ readers may now be spluttering, pointing at the Ergon, the Garm and the Mara. ‘See those monsters? They’re monsters, they are!’ Well… we could probably have quite a long argument about this. But they’re either not the antagonist, or are barely seen.)

Funnily enough, though, this accident – this loss of monsters – makes this more of an anniversary season than it might otherwise have been. It takes us back to how it all began. It’s perhaps surprising to note how little monsters featured back then. Of course there were the Daleks, but they didn’t even appear until the end of The Dead Planet, and aside from that Season One has Voord (who might’ve been people dressed in rubber) and the Sensorites who, if we go by Monster=Antagonist, don’t really count at all.

Viewers were enchanted by an unearthly school pupil in a time-travelling story back in 1963, so why not in 1983? Throw in a heroic teacher (or two) and you’ve got it made. Distrust, even attempted murder, in the TARDIS? That’s good drama, whether it’s the Black Guardian or a stuck Fast Return Switch behind it. We have the classic device of ‘villain adopts absurd disguise that everyone can see through’, although it’s a toss up as to whether the Master wearing a slightly bigger beard or Yartek thinking that a hood could disguise the fact that he has an antenna on his head is the more optimistic charade. We’re made aware of the seriousness of time travel, whether it’s Barbara wanting to change the Aztecs or the Master trying to prevent the signing of Magna Carta (both stories even have members of the TARDIS crew mistaken for supernatural beings). Moral dilemmas abound in Season One, and Season 20 doesn’t shy away from them – the Doctor must die to save the universe from Omega. The Doctor must give up his regenerations so Tegan and Nyssa can live. Turlough has to choose between the Doctor and material gain. Turlough agreeing to kill the Doctor so he can escape from Earth has definite echoes of the Doctor kidnapping Ian and Barbara so he and Susan are able to go on travelling the universe.

So, what do we have? No monsters – no commercial success! ‘Kisses to the past’ (Omega, the Brigadier, the Black Guardian, the Master) – no originality! Similar story traits to the very first season – no progress! It’s still a disaster, isn’t it?

Of course not. Each season is unique, each has its own delights. Snakedance, Mawdryn Undead and Enlightenment are really like nothing we’ve seen before, however much we might point out this parallel or that. They’re all both original and wonderful. Arc of Infinity showcases just how good an actor Peter Davison is, the wonder and pain of his Omega are remarkable to behold. Terminus is claustrophobic and unsettling. The King’s Demons has its faults, but it also has ‘We sing in praise of total war’ (songs in Doctor Who are always cause for celebration). Are the Daleks missed? Is there a huge space-whale-shaped hole in the season? Not really. It turns out Doctor Who isn’t about monsters. It’s about stories.

Memorable Moments

1. “The bond is not complete.” “Isn’t it?” In a nod to The Three Doctors, the series gives us its second brilliant ‘Omega removes mask to reveal…’ moment. This time the Doctor finds himself facing his double. Arc of Infinity Part One.
2. “It’s no good, Doctor.” Realisation that Tegan and Nyssa can no longer travel in time. And also that young Nyssa looks like a young Julie from Press Gang (whatever happened to the writer of that?). Mawdryn Undead Part Four.
3. “Entertainment. Children half price. Step this way please for the spectacle of a lifetime.” It all gets rather unsettling as Ambril uncovers more than antiques on his treasure hunt. Snakedance Part Three.
4. “Enlightenment was not the diamond. Enlightenment was the choice.” Good triumphs, evil is defeated. Everyone learns a lesson and Turlough is redeemed. It’s all really rather lovely. Enlightenment Part Four.