Monday, January 5, 2015

Season 7 Overview

Season Seven's regular cast, from L to R:
Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart),
Jon Pertwee (the Doctor), Caroline John (Liz Shaw)
Terrance Dicks, long-time script editor of Doctor Who, is fond of recounting that, after completion of Season 6 in 1969, the BBC wanted to cancel the series. Dicks maintains that if the powers that be had had anything suitable to take the programme's place, it most likely would never have received a seventh season at all. But, as they felt they didn't have anything developed enough in place, Doctor Who was given one last chance to improve on its viewing figures and resolve its production issues. Whether or not Dicks' version is accurate, it is certainly true that Doctor Who's seventh season was one of huge change and great success, beginning a surge of popularity that would last a full decade and would enshrine the programme as a beloved cultural icon once and for all. That would have been a substantial achievement alone, but the seventh season also represents a high-water mark in quality, resulting in one of the most perfect seasons in the history of the series.


As producer Derrick Sherwin began preparations for the production of the seventh season, several substantial production changes were put in place. First, in a move to modernize the series, it would be produced in colour for the first time. Additionally, the episode count for the season would be reduced from the punishing and untenable 40 plus episodes to a far more manageable 25. The series would also now be recorded at Television Centre, the BBC's main production facility, allowing for larger sets and more up to date studios.

Perhaps the greatest change to the production of the series involved the very method of recording. Ever since the series began in 1963, the episodes had been produced weekly. The cast and director would rehearse a single episode for most of the week, and then at week's end they would move into the studio, recording the entire episode in one two hour recording session, nearly "live." As the series progressed throughout the 1960s, more and more location filming was added, but this footage could only be filmed on weekends initially. This move exhausted cast and crew and greatly limited how much footage they could film. Near the end of the Troughton era, the actor succeeded in negotiating separate location filming days, but this squeezed the schedule even more. At times, production was only one week ahead of broadcast.

By 1969, it was clear this could no longer continue. Reducing the episode count for the season would help, but they also changed how they made episodes. Now, two episodes would be recorded at the same time. The episodes were allotted several days for location filming, then the cast would rehearse both episodes together for two weeks, then head into the studio for two days of recording, with each recording session being two hours. This new style afforded the production team greater flexibility, allowed them to shoot out of sequence to maximize sets and guest casts, and generally made production much smoother and more efficient.
Jon Pertwee and Caroline John rehearse "Inferno"

But even with these changes, budgets were still a problem. The change to colour was an added cost, and the budget per episode hadn't been increased to compensate. Sherwin had already decided to exile the Doctor to a near-contemporary Earth setting in order to reduce the cost of mounting fantastical settings, but he made another decision to help reduce expense further that had its own effect. Sherwin knew that the first episode of any serial was always the most expensive, so the decision was made to have the season be made up of predominantly seven part stories, in order to stretch the costs of sets and casts over more episodes.

As production began, the series was hit by an unforeseen setback. Due to job action involving studio employees, the first serial was going to be unable to record in any BBC studio. Rather than cancelling the story outright, the decision was made to shoot Spearhead From Space entirely on film.

At this point, Sherwin and Peter Bryant were abruptly pulled off Doctor Who to help save an ailing BBC series called "Paul Temple." Terrance Dicks would remain as script editor, and a new producer would be brought on board. The choice was former actor and current director Barry Letts. Although Letts and Dicks both disagreed with the decision to keep the Doctor earth-bound, as well as with having so many seven part stories, things were too far along to make a change at this point, and they hit the ground running.

What's amazing to me is that this melding of two different production teams resulted in one of the boldest and most sophisticated periods the classic series produced. Letts and Dicks may not have liked the decision to exile the Doctor, and also may not have liked the idea of a more adult-oriented and serious tone, but that approach immediately gave the series an intensity and immediacy that was like a breath of fresh air. The stories of the season all feature characters that are more complex and nuanced than the series had previously shown. Each adventure eschewed easy morality tales in favour of depicting a variety of motivations to even the "baddies", and the setting had the advantage of bringing the threats close to home. Terrance Dicks brought his immense skill at structure and plotting to bear on scripts, honing them and shaping them and making sure that they all felt remarkably consistent. As for Letts, he was fascinated with emerging production tools such as CSO (or what would become green screen) and he proved to be ingenious at finding creative efficiencies to maximize what budgets he did have. And both men worked extremely well with series star Jon Pertwee, who had been hired by Bryant to bring his comedic attributes to the series, but who saw the series as his chance to make his mark as a serious dramatic actor. His decision to play the role absolutely straight, with hints of waspish arrogance and complete authority, meshed perfectly with how Letts and Dicks saw the character.

The 1970 Production Team, with Barry Letts (centre, foreground)
& Terrance Dicks (right of centre, back row, with moustache)
The collection of stories that make up Season Seven are among the best written and most gripping of the series. Spearhead From Space is in many ways the best introduction to what a classic Doctor Who story is like, but this gives way to the experimentation of …the Silurians, which sees the Doctor vainly try to broker peace between two species. Then comes Ambassadors of Death, with its unusual production style and reliance on steady tension over bombast. Finally, Inferno closes the season, an all-time classic that might be the best adventure the series had made to that point.

The success of Season Seven was more than artistic, though. The series found great success with audiences, as well, and it managed to secure more allies within the BBC's power structure itself. The combination of Pertwee's confident performance, the familiar setting, and the stability provided by Letts and Dicks' style, guaranteed that Doctor Who would continue for some time.

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