Thursday, June 30, 2016

Season 13 Overview

Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen while filming
Pyramids of Mars
The thirteenth season of Doctor Who was a momentous one for a few reasons. It saw the broadcast schedule for the programme change, going from debuting in January to debuting at the end of August or early September. It saw the high ratings of the previous year prove to be more than a fluke, indeed it confirmed the series was growing in popularity. It also confirmed that Tom Baker's unconventional and eccentric Doctor was a hit with audiences, and allowed producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes begin to fully embrace their Gothic take on the series to an even greater degree. The result was a season of stories that were darker, richer, and more atmospheric than ever before.

Terror of the Zygons may have been held over from Season 12's production block, but its horror-influenced tone fits in well with this season, and also provides a farewell for Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier, John Levene's Benton and Ian Marter's Harry Sullivan. Though Marter and Levene would reprise their roles one more time in The Android Invasion, and UNIT would reappear in The Seeds of Doom, Terror of the Zygons very much represents the swan song of the classic UNIT family, and never again would the cozy warmth of that era be recaptured.

It's a fitting way to begin a season that fully embraces taking the Doctor back out into space, back out into the fantastic. During the Pertwee years, the stories set in space felt unusual, almost diversions from the norm of the Earth-bound adventures that defined that era. Season 13 is the first season since then where the stories set on contemporary Earth feel like the oddities. It has now become clear that Tom Baker's Doctor is a wanderer, and his place is out there, not down on Earth.

The stories that make up the season all embrace the production team's affinity for gothic pastiche in a fuller way than Season 12 did. From the giant monster tropes of Terror of the Zygons, to Planet of Evil's interpretation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to the Hammer Mummy films' influence on Pyramids of Mars, to the re-telling of Frankenstein that is The Brain of Morbius and finally the way The Seeds of Doom takes on stories like Day of the Triffids.

But while leaning so heavily on pastiche should make the season feel derivative, the opposite effect is what happens. The heavy horror influence requires the series to embrace atmospherics and mood, a far easier thing to effectively replicate on their small budgets than say, space opera. The result is a season where the production values seem higher than usual. Some of this is no doubt because Hinchcliffe did spend every penny of his available budget (and more so, to be honest), but it's also because this kind of story plays to the strengths of the series.

The result is a season that feels like a tonally cohesive one, and one that is far less uneven that some other seasons have been due to this style unifying the serials. It's still not perfect yet and I imagine next season will feel more of a piece than this one, but the confidence on display here means that Season 13 boasts high watchability. The low point of the season, The Android Invasion, is still easy to enjoy on a rainy afternoon, even if it strains credulity.

Producer Philip Hinchcliffe appears as a past incarnation of
Morbius or the Doctor in
The Brain of Morbius
Season 13 also cements perhaps the great Doctor/companion team of all time in the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith. By this point, the radical feminist version of Sarah is almost completely gone. This could be seen as a bad thing, though I'd argue that the women's lib version of Sarah was rarely written anything like how an actual feminist would have written her, so maybe it's not a huge loss. What we get instead is a devoted team of best friends, literally two against the universe. Jo Grant may have refined the concept of the ideal Doctor Who companion, but Lis Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith exemplified it. Unlike pretty every other Doctor/Companion pairing prior, The Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane felt as close to true equals and best friends as anyone. It was almost as if they took the best qualities of the most successful companions and poured them all into this relationship. Sarah had the total faith of Jo Grant, the intrepidity of Vicki, the independence of Steven, and Jamie's ability to tease the Doctor without diminishing him. And Tom Baker and Sladen deepened their bond in between the lines and without big emotional moments. Above all, over the course of this season, Sarah Jane became perhaps the most perfect audience surrogate in the programme's history. Above and beyond the success of the individual stories that make up Season 13, you can't deny it features perhaps the most successful pairing in the history of the series.

The thirteenth season did more than cement Tom Baker's popularity, it confirmed the success of the production teams' vision for the show, one that took it away from Earth-based action adventure into more gothic tales set in the darker parts of space. It was a season that relied not on returning monsters and familiar faces, but archetypal chills and new, creepier adversaries. In short, Season 13 was a wake-up call that Doctor Who was entering uncharted waters, and for many, the best was yet to come.

Baker signing autographs while on location filming
The Android Invasion

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