Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Season 12 Overview

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen at the
photo call announcing his casting.
With a new leading man, a new producer and a new script editor, it would certainly be tempting to call Season 12 the start of a bold new era for Doctor Who. But, truth be told, due to the way the programme was made, it's not quite the new broom that it first appears to be. It's one of what I like to call "Shoulder Seasons", because it's really a melding of the old production team and the new, resulting in a merging of sensibilities that don't allow the new team to definitively make its stamp, even as the influence of the previous team is limited, albeit felt in crucial ways.

Though Barry Letts was no longer in charge of the series during Season 12, he commissioned all of the scripts for the season, and made some initial production decisions that greatly affected the content and shape of the whole season. However, new producer Philip Hinchcliffe and incoming script editor Robert Holmes then had to shape these scripts and actually produce the stories, crafting the tone and style of the new era. The overall result is one that serves to point the way the series was heading without being too jarring of a transition. A lot of this is helped by the fact that Holmes had been working on the series for some time already, and had a major hand in script commissioning, but Season 12 still winds up feeling transitional.


The first serial, Robot, was produced by Barry Letts at the same time as Jon Pertwee's swan song, Planet of the Spiders, and that of course explains why its tone and style is so similar to a classic Third Doctor story. In my review, I found this decision brilliant, as the familiar setting only highlights Tom Baker's radically different performance and how uncomfortable the Fourth Doctor fits into the UNIT family. At its close, when he, Sarah and Harry head off into space, far from feeling sad it feels right and exciting.
Incoming Script Editor Robert Holmes

The Ark in Space is perhaps the story of the season that most accurately prefigures the Hinchcliffe/Holmes approach to Doctor Who. Commissioned by Barry Letts, the original writer was John Lucarotti, one of Doctor Who's earliest and most respected contributors of historical stories. The scripts that he sent in were of course hugely similar to the Doctor's adventures in the 1960s, and as a result were probably too old fashioned to be suitable. When Lucarotti proved unavailable for rewrites, Robert Holmes completely re-worked the scripts, turning what was probably a straight-forward simplistic sci-fi creature feature into a sleek and atmospheric existential horror story that contained some of the best dialogue and design in the series up to that point. Hinchcliffe's first production for the story features bold and innovative design from Roger Murray-Leach that, though clearly not expensive, never feels cheap and always feels creative. But the main reason why that space station set looks so good is because Barry Letts had the original idea to set two different serials there, set eons apart in time, thereby spreading the cost out. 

Letts was also most likely responsible for The Sontaran Experiment being set entirely on location, by taking the allocated location filming time for a six-part episode and using it to construct a single two-part story, which meant that the four part Ark in Space had to be entirely studio-bound. It was a decision that sat well with Hinchcliffe and Holmes anyway, as they both found six part stories unwieldily and were glad to have one off their plate for the season. 

Letts also commissioned Genesis of the Daleks from Terry Nation after pushing the Dalek creator for an origin story after Nation's original proposal was too similar to other scripts he had provided the series in the past. The result was Nation's best set of scripts, polished to perfection by Holmes (though he always said he had to polish less than people believed) and produced with Hinchcliffe's new directive of using darker lighting and more atmosphere, lending the stories more weight and greater production values. Along with The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks is clearly the jewel of the season, but Hinchcliffe and Holmes weren't exactly excited to have the Daleks back, and only warmed to the story because of how it different it was from past appearances. Tellingly, it was the last time the Daleks would appear for four years, returning only after both Hinchcliffe and Holmes had left the series.

They felt similarly about the Cybermen, who made their first appearance in the series since 1968's The Invasion. Once again, Holmes heavily re-wrote the writer's original scripts, in this case Gerry Davis, but less successfully, resulting in the only story of the season that could be called a complete misfire. And also tellingly, the Cybermen wouldn't return for seven years. Though Holmes recognized that having a new Doctor face old foes was a solid choice to establish the actor's credentials with fans, he and Hinchcliffe were more eager to have their Doctor face new foes as much as possible.

New Producer Philip Hinchcliffe
But Revenge of the Cybermen wasn't originally supposed to close out the Fourth Doctor's inaugural season, rather Terror of the Zygons was supposed to conclude Season 12. For most of the 1970s, Doctor Who had debuted near Christmas and ran until early summer, but the powers that be had noticed that as summer kicked off, ratings invariably fell, so the decision was made to kick off Season 13 earlier, in September, allowing the season to end at the beginning of March and hopefully avoid the fall off of summer. As a result, Terror of the Zygons would be held back to kick off Season 13.

Of course, it isn't just the changing tone and focus of the series that heralds a coming new direction. Tom Baker's central performance is captivating from his first scene, and though he spends most of the season finding exactly who his Doctor will be, his initial choices create a radically different and more overtly eccentric version of the character than we've seen before. Baker himself was a natural eccentric, but that can sometimes overshadow the fascinating choices he makes to accentuate the Doctor's alien nature. In moments when the Doctor isn't speaking, Baker will often stare off into space, almost in a trance, a spooky trait that communicates an otherness that's occasionally unsettling. He also seems to deliberately play against lines, delivering lines that seem written as deadly serious as a joke and vice versa. His physicality is natural but odd. His Doctor could never be mistaken for a human being. But, Baker's performance is still developing. The wit and mercurial mood swings and implacable confidence isn't quite in place yet, so his Doctor is not quite yet the iconic figure he'll become. But he's never less than utterly fascinating, and also unlike some of his later performances in the role, totally committed.

He's also blessed with two cast-mates with whom he shared immediate chemistry. Baker clearly loved working with Lis Sladen and Ian Marter, and over the course of the season we see that chemistry develop and grow. Sadly Harry Sullivan becomes superfluous over time, but Sarah Jane and the Doctor are inseparable by the season's end, and even if they aren't quite the pairing of legend they will soon become, we can see the foundation there and maybe all they required was their one-on-one adventures to crystallize that.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and the Daleks

In the end, Season 12 is a somewhat curious mix of adventures that carry a tinge of the ones Jon Pertwee might have gone on, but with a foreboding darkness creeping around the edges of the more atmospheric era to come. As such, it works beautifully as an appetizer and  is one of the most enjoyable seasons to watch all in a row.

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