Monday, May 25, 2015

Season 9 Overview

From L to R: A Dalek, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee)
& producer Barry Letts
As Doctor Who ended its 8th season, the series was entering what was perhaps its greatest period of stability. The programme had a producer that was by this point skilled in maximizing the meagre budgets allotted for the series, a production/recording schedule had finally been established that worked, and the script editor had developed a system whereby he was able to consistently do the final drafts of almost every script, creating a consistent tone overall. The star of the series had confidently settled into the role, shared impeccable chemistry with his co-stars, and the production relied upon a small stable of writers for the stories that they could depend on, most of whom were the best the series ever had.

As a result, the viewing figures increased as well. In Patrick Troughton's final season as the Doctor in 1969, the viewing figures averaged around 6 and a half million. Season 7, Pertwee's first, saw those figures increase to 7.28 million, and Season 8 increased again to nearly 8 million. No longer in constant danger of cancellation by the BBC, the series once again had champions on the management side, its immediate future assured.

Producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks had also, after two seasons of experimentation, believed they had found a format that worked for their vision of the series. Neither had ever been happy about the Doctor's exile to Earth, but they couldn't discount the budgetary advantages of a contemporary, somewhat consistent, setting. They also greatly enjoyed working with the cast members who made up UNIT. The plot device of having the Time Lords send the Doctor to other worlds to act as their agent freed the series from the limitations of the Earthbound stories, without having to jettison an aspect of the series that had by now become popular with viewers and enjoyable to the production team.

They had experimented in the 8th season with having the Master appear in every story, but after coming to the conclusion that didn't really work, they limited his appearance in the 9th season to one or two stories. A popular addition, the Master couldn't disappear entirely, but limiting his role gave his appearances greater impact, and also ameliorated growing tension from Jon Pertwee, who (though he greatly enjoyed working with Roger Delgado) was beginning to feel the Master was overshadowing the Doctor.

From L to R: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Alpha Centauri (Stuart Fell),
Izlyr (Alan Bennion) - The Curse of Peladon
Having finally cemented their approach, the team felt it was time to bring back some older characters that had long been absent from the Pertwee era, focused as it had initially been on being new-style Doctor Who. At the absolute top of the list were the Daleks. They hadn't appeared in the series since 1967's The Evil of the Daleks, nearly five years earlier. Dalek creator Terry Nation had at the time been trying to sell his creations to American television, and had withdrawn permission to use them on Doctor Who. But, with those attempts proving unsuccessful, he permitted them to return to the series, though he was too busy to write them himself. Instead they were integrated into an already commissioned script by Louis Marks.

The series also saw the return of the Ice Warriors, albeit in a different role than their last appearance in 1969's The Seeds of Death. Playing off both the Doctor's and the audiences assumptions they would be the villains, Brain Hayles' script re-cast them as eventual allies of the Doctor. Malcolm Hulke was asked to provide a sequel to his Silurian story from Season 7, introducing the Sea Devils and teaming them up with the Master. The final two stories would feature new characters and concepts, though the Master would return in the final story of the season.

The production team was also keen to put their stamp on the series in another way. Letts was eager to start overtly introducing allegorical elements that would allows for commentary on contemporary social issues. Where some Doctor Who stories over the years had included oblique allegory, this wasn't necessarily a dictum from a production team per se, but rather an inclination of the individual writers. For the first time, audiences were seeing overt attempts to make a comment. The Curse of Peladon's plot-line reflected the UK's entry into the European Common Market. Elements of The Sea Devils death with the complexities of cold war negotiations and sabre-rattling vs. meaningful dialogue. The Mutants attempts to comment on apartheid and the problems of colonialism and exploitation. Not all of these allegories work as well as they should, and they are often handled far less subtly than needed, but the attempts are noble, and they never become the focus of the story, never detract from the adventures themselves.

In the final analysis, Season 9 is the beginning of what most viewers think of when they think of the Perwee era. There's an amazing sense of continuity throughout, of confidence in what the cast and crew are doing. The series is now resolutely an adventure series with a commanding, charming leading man. His relationship with Jo is beautifully performed, and the character of Jo herself has grown from scatter-brained girl into a somewhat eccentric and loyal friend who is capable and compassionate. The Brigadier and UNIT have begun to suffer a little, becoming less and less effective and more and more blundering. They're now loveable rather than competent, and I have to say I miss the crack squad and efficient commander of Season 7. But the tone of the series has solidified here, giving the audience the feeling that each story is the beginning of a enjoyable adventure with a group of old friends. This can, when the team is off their game, turn smug, but most of them time it creates a warm atmosphere.

As for the individual stories themselves, Season 9 offers a wildly varying bunch. You get two stone-cold classics of the era in The Curse of Peladon and The Sea Devils, and a mixed-bag of highs and lows in Day of the Daleks. But the final two stories of the season, The Mutants and The Time Monster, are probably the worst of the Third Doctor era, and strong candidates for worst of the classic series. The interesting thing to me is that the production team and cast are so solid that even deficiencies in the scripting and production can be surmounted by the tone and charm of the series at this point. From here, the Third Doctor's era would head into a season that would nearly rival the brilliant Season 7 in terms of quality, and far exceed it in terms of popularity.

From L to R: Jo Grant, The Doctor, the Brigadier
(Nicholas Courtney), Ruth Ingram (Wanda Moore), Stuart Hyde
(Ian Collier, lying down) - The Time Monster
As the series heads into its tenth anniversary, its future never looked brighter.

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