Season 24. A new beginning – that no one was ready for. A last-minute renewal for a series that had no Doctor, no script editor, no scripts, and a producer who didn’t want to be there. Not the best omen (although a good O-Man would be along shortly).
Doctor Who has nearly always been a show that worked to someone’s vision, whether producer or script editor or someone higher up in the BBC who dreamed of a world with less violence and more prat falls. Season 24 dances between being visionless and being the victim of conflicting visions, and while it’s enjoyable in many ways, it’s unlikely to be anyone’s favourite. (In DWM’s Top 200 survey, Time and the Rani came in 198th position, with Paradise Towers (193rd), Dragonfire (186th) and Delta and the Bannermen (180th) not rated much higher.)
It ticks the boxes. Doctor Who is supposed to have villains or robots or monsters, so Season 24 has a sprinkling of villains and robots and monsters. Doctor Who attracts star names, so here are a number of well-known faces. But in the absence of a concrete vision, it becomes a cartoon.
Eric Saward had walked out at the end of Season 23, leaving the show without a script editor. Producer John Nathan-Turner was brilliant on areas such as budgets and publicity, but usually left it to his script editors to shape the show’s direction – science for Bidmead, violence for Saward, dark graphic-novel for Cartmel.
Time and the Rani is an obviously rudderless ship. The writers didn’t know who the new Doctor would be, so couldn’t even shape it around him. Then Sylvester McCoy, once aboard, had to find his feet in a story that required him to be rather dim and clownish. The story itself is competent but uninspiring, saved from absolute ignominy by some excellent direction, effects and performances. While the Rani pretending to be Mel is a highlight, at the time of broadcast it was another nail in the coffin of Doctor Who for viewers who were too old to believe the show was still cool but too young to appreciate kitschness – this was, quite frankly, just embarrassing.
Script editor Andrew Cartmel had come on board during Time and the Rani, but admits that he found himself fighting against its approach and wasn’t able to mould it as he would have liked. Most of this season sees him attempting to push the show in one way, with all the structures that are already in place pushing it in the other; it’s not until Season 25 that we really come into the ‘Cartmel years’. Season 24 is a stopgap, holding season.
Tenth and Eleventh Doctor writer Gareth Roberts has suggested that the pre-2005 show would have turned out differently if it had adopted ‘tone meetings’ such as Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat favour – the creative team as a whole deciding what direction to pull in and acting accordingly. It’s hard to imagine any tone meeting that would result in Paradise Towers. Andrew Cartmel’s influence can be seen in the dark, intelligent script, but its potential is buried under bizarre casting and directorial choices. Mel Bush is an admirable companion in the right environment, but it would be fair to say she isn’t a dystopian future type of gal, and the usually excellent Richard Briers goes just a tiny bit… OTT, shall we say? It’s been widely reported how Pex was envisaged as a musclebound hunk – there’s nothing to criticise in Howard Cooke’s performance, but the script called for a different character.
Delta and the Bannermen, although much more successful as a whole, again mixes the nice and the nasty, giving us lovely Ken Dodd as the lovely tollmaster but having him cold-bloodedly murdered. It liberally sprinkles light-entertainment figures throughout: Please Sir!’s Richard Davies, American vaudeville star Stubby Kaye and Hugh Lloyd, comedy co-star of Tony Handcock, Sid James and Terry Scott among others. Dragonfire takes a step on the path to the Who of the future, writing out Mel and introducing Ace, and we’re beginning to work out who this new Doctor is, but it’s sadly obvious that not everyone in its production is on the same page. Overly lit sets don’t help the atmosphere, while the less said about the Doctor hanging from a cliff for no apparent reason, the better. There has been criticism of the statue of Xana, the ‘incandescent artistry’ that looks like a giant jelly baby; I prefer to think that Kane doesn’t judge by appearances, which is a nice counterpoint to all that violence and extortion and mass murder he does the rest of the time.
So, Season 24. Neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring. But important nonetheless. It gave everyone space to find their way – and what came next promised to be amazing.
1. “Leave the girl, it’s the man I want.” The Rani boards the TARDIS and the Doctor regenerates due to… bumping his head? Being turned over a bit too roughly by a Tetrap? No one’s entirely sure. Time and the Rani Part One.
2. “There’s nothing quite like tea and crumpets, is there? I feel so much more relaxed.” Mel proves to be the most naive fictional character since Jemima Puddle-Duck agreed to fetch sage and onions for the foxy-whiskered gentleman. Paradise Towers Part Two.
3. “Take a look at this butterfly. Arguably one of the most beautiful creatures in the whole of nature.” Goronwy shows off an insect, and viewers go, “Hmm, he’s a bit Time Lord-y, isn’t he?” Delta and the Bannermen Part Two.
4. “Danger, unfiltered sunlight.” Kane melts in an astonishingly good special effect, freeing Iceworld but giving children nightmares in the process. Dragonfire Part Four.