Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Season 10 Overview

The Three Doctors, from L to R: Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee &
William Hartnell 
As 1973 began, Doctor Who hit a milestone; it had been on the air for ten years. Eager to observe this milestone, the production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks wanted to create a story that would feature all of the actors to have played the role of the Doctor. This was merely the tip of the celebratory plans, which included the return of the Daleks and the writer who created them, Roger Delgado's next appearance as the Master, the departure of Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and an attempt to create a linked narrative over a longer series of episodes, a la The Dalek's Master Plan.

Though the series had been enjoying continued ratings success in the 1970s, there were still those at the BBC that thought it had run its course, and it was suggested in some corners the the series come to an end. However, the BBC had recently signed a lucrative licensing deal with Target to novelize the Doctor's televised adventures, and this deal created a demand for new stories to keep the book line going. Additionally  the series finally had support in the Beeb's upper management, something that had been lacking since the departure of Sydney Newman during the Troughton era. 

So, as the series moved into its tenth season, big plans were under way. Letts had contacted Patrick Troughton to see if he was willing to reprise his role as the Second Doctor. Though his busy schedule would provide only a small and specific window that would find the season produced out of broadcast order, he was eager to return to the series. Letts also contacted William Hartnell and secured his agreement to return as the First Doctor. However, Letts subsequently discovered that Hartnell was more ill than he let on. Hartnell's wife contacted Letts and let him know that the actor's arteriosclerosis had advanced to a very serious stage, and the there would be no way he would be able to fully commit to a large role in the story. Unfortunately, this was after Hartnell's participation had been announced. Both Letts and Dicks were able to modify the scripts so that the First Doctor's role would be largely advisory, and allow Hartnell to film pre-recorded scenes, reading off cue cards.

The season would next feature (though it would be recorded first) Robert Holmes' return to the series after a year's absence with Carnival of Monsters. The story would be the first story since 1969 that would feature a Doctor free from exile, able to roam in time and space once more. It had taken three seasons, but Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had finally eliminated the exile concept they had never liked in the first place. The next two stories would try to form a loose narrative involving the Daleks' attempt to conquer the galaxy. Sort of. Though Barry Letts would later claim Frontier in Space and Planet of the Daleks formed a single storyline dubbed "The Dalek War", in truth the stories had almost nothing to do with each other, and the lack of coherence between them, if Letts is being honest about their aims, is proof of a rare lack of confidence on the production team to follow through on an idea. 

A Draconian from Frontier in Space
The season concluded with The Green Death, a stellar example of the strengths of the era that featured some of the best performances by the lead characters, exemplified by a poignant final scene that would rank as one of the best single moments in the series to date. 

The tenth season is perhaps the best example of the true, uncompromised vision of what Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts thought was ideal Doctor Who. He travelled through time and space, but kept strong ties with the UNIT family on Earth, sharing his adventures with a single young female companion he could watch over in a protective way. The stories were strong on plot and concept, and by this point Dicks had fully constructed an informal and dependable writing staff; Bob Baker and Dave Martin (known as the Bristol Boys), Robert Holmes, Malcolm Hulke, the writing team of Robert Sloman and Barry Letts, and one slot open for a different writer. Dicks himself would do a final pass on all scripts, in order to maintain the tone of the series. As a producer, Letts had found multiple ways to maximize costs and keep production running smoothly, creating a recording and filming schedule that made the most of what meagre resources they had. They had also built a stable of reliable directors who knew how to work within the confines of the show, some of whom were better than others, but the best of whom (Michael Briant and David Maloney, for example) could still have a directorial voice and add to the strengths of the stories and cover up any weaknesses. And the ensemble, very much led by Pertwee, greatly enjoyed working together and from all accounts was extremely welcoming to guest actors. 

This all culminates in an era that is perhaps best known for its consistent tone and style. And the tenth season best exemplifies this. while the stories aren't as innovative, bold or consistently brilliant as Pertwee's first season, Season 7, the tenth season is probably the definitive example of what you can point to when you want to explain the Pertwee era to someone. Of all the stories in this season, only one can be called unenjoyable (Planet of the Daleks) and though The Three Doctors is uneven, it remains a fun exercise in nostalgia. The remaining stories are all considered absolute classics of the era, and to many fans, are archetypal examples of Doctor Who. Something like The Green Death, for example, can be held up to show a non-fan what the series is about. 

Though the Pertwee era has its detractors (and for understandable reasons; namely the casual sexism, the action-man vibe of the Third Doctor and his arrogance, and the earth-bound nature of the period) those issues are largely a question of taste. The programme at this time is firing on all cylinders, delivering exactly the type of entertainment its setting out to do, and connecting with audiences as it does so. 

But the end is in sight. With the Doctor's exile lifted, UNIT was about to become less and less a vital component of the show, reducing Nicholas Courtney's involvement. Katy Manning's departure, too, significantly changed the feel of the series. Her chemistry with Pertwee was substantial, and as an actor she perfectly fit into his vision of the Doctor/Companion relationship. Their relationship was such a success that the pairing of the Doctor with a young woman became the de facto set-up for the series for years, perhaps for all time. Her loss was a blow both to the show and to Pertwee personally. And most sadly, the untimely death of Roger Delgado rocked the entire production team on their heels. 

From L to R: Stewart Bevan (Prof. Cliff Jones), Katy Manning (Jo Grant),
Jon Pertwee (the Doctor), Nicholas Courtney (the Brigadier) in
The Green Death

But perhaps the biggest signpost that the end of this era was at a close was the fact that Letts and Dicks were about to begin work on a new series called Moonbase 3. It was an ambitious sci-fi project that was a co-production with American television, and it would eat up more and more of their time and attention. True, the production team had created a well-oiled machine in their time on Doctor Who, but the next season would see a show that was perhaps running more and more on auto-pilot. The next season would not be without its successes, but in my opinion, the tenth season remains the high-water mark for the classic Letts/Dicks era.

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