Thursday, February 5, 2015

Season 8 Overview

From L to R: Roger Delgado, Katy Manning, Jon Pertwee,
Nicholas Courtney
The success of the previous season had secured Doctor Who's future for the time being. The management at the BBC were now positive about the programme, feeling that Jon Pertwee and the production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were steering the series in the right direction.

As for Letts and Dicks themselves, Season 8 represented a chance for them to fully enact their vision for the series, free from the intentions of their predecessors. Though they both disliked the exile storyline, they couldn't get rid of that aspect yet. The contemporary setting offered too many budgetary advantages. However, they were able to plan to set one serial off-planet. They wanted to lighten the tone slightly, to bring the series back to a more family-friendly feel without sacrificing the high-stakes and jeopardy that brought the thrills and chills to the series. For the first time, they were free to make Doctor Who into the show they wanted it to be, and the close camaraderie between producer, director and star resulted in a warmer tone overall. Letts and Dicks were also making an attempt to inject a social conscience and message to each story. At times, this message would be obvious, and it was always earnest, but the use of allegory and metaphor  was welcome and certainly needed after the two-dimensional qualities of the late Troughton era.

Dicks and Letts also were eager to find a "hook" for the season, an overarching element that would unite the serials into something close to a cohesive whole. They settled on the idea of creating a Moriarty to the Doctor's Holmes, a formidable and equally brilliant adversary that could feature in every story of the season. They decided to call their archenemy the Master, as that was a level of academic achievement just below a doctorate. 

With their foe in place, they turned their attention towards creating a new companion for the Doctor. They had been dissatisfied with the character of Liz Shaw in Season 7, and took the opportunity to create one more in keeping with their ideal. Jo Grant would be naive, a novice agent who was more flighty and scatter-brained than the sensible Liz. To Letts and Dicks, and to Pertwee himself, the companion should be someone the Doctor needed to protect, who could ask the necessary expository questions the audience needed answered. 

Richard Franklin as Capt. Mike Yates
To compliment Jo, and to finally give UNIT some much-needed definition, John Levene's Sgt. Benton would take on a greater role, while the new character of Captain Mike Yates would give the Brig an executive officer as well as provide a possible romantic interest for Jo. These supporting characters also served a structural purpose as well. Letts and Dicks were well aware how much the workload of carrying all of the action of the stories had weighed on Patrick Troughton. They felt that a strong supporting cast would lighten the burden on Pertwee. 

Having now watched the entirety of the season, it's clear that the stability generated by these decisions, as well as the more confident and efficient style of Barry Letts and the skill of Terrance Dicks, allowed for a greater consistency for the season as a whole. Even discounting the presence of the regular antagonist (we'll get to the Master in a second), Season 8 feels remarkably of a piece, even though the stories themselves are varied. Dicks would basically do all final drafts of the scripts themselves, which certainly accounts for the feeling of consistency, but Letts was very good at creating efficiencies and streamlining processes, as well as finding a way to squeeze every ounce of value from the budget. The result was season that caused as few production ripples as possible, and felt extremely well-defined.

The experiment of having the Master appear in every story doesn't quite come off, it must be said. There's no surprise to his appearances, and his plans vary wildly in terms of credulity and even more so in quality. The production got immensely lucky in the casting of Roger Delgado, who brilliantly brings a cold menace covered over with wit and charm to the part. His constant defeats do erode the Master's impressiveness, but Delgado's skill ensure that the character never wears out his welcome at all.

The character of Jo is more troubling. As she is written initially, we're told that she is skilled in escapology, and a qualified agent. But the production team's decision to cast Katy Manning, and then tailor the part to some of her more eccentric character traits, results in the feeling that the team thinks women should act like Jo, and therefore be slightly daffy and prone to making foolhardy mistakes and asking ridiculous questions. Manning overcomes this beautifully by instilling Jo with an intrepid spirit and an unwavering faith in the Doctor. Her chemistry with Pertwee is incredible, and even though the character gets off to a shaky start in Terror of the Autons, by The Dæmons, the legendary team of the Doctor and Jo is in place. Even if Jo was never going to be the feminist icon that Liz could have been, that chemistry is so great that it creates a template for many viewers of what the ideal Doctor/Companion relationship should be.

As for Pertwee himself, he makes the choice to play the Doctor abrasively this season, and in my opinion takes that side of the Doctor too far. There are numerous times that he acts in an unlikable manner, and in small meaningless ways that aren't textually explained. Fans have often surmised that he is chafing under his exile, but that's never even hinted at, and if you're going to choose to play your main character this way, a deeper reason needs to be hinted at, not left to viewers to surmise.

In the final analysis, Season 8, while flawed, shows the stability and the inventiveness of the production team leading the series to begin a renaissance of sorts. There are still some rough spots to iron out, certainly, but the pieces are in place to begin a golden age for the program, one that will blossom over the next season.


Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning pose with locals
while filming on location for The Dæmons





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