Part one of our two-part review focuses on the story content provided in this classic collection.
Following the success of the previous boxset releases of seasons 12 and 19, classic Who continues to see re-releases in HD, with this month’s offerings being season 18, AKA fourth Doctor Tom Baker’s last. The trend in releases so far seems to place a Baker season every other release, though whether this pattern continues remains to be seen. The previous season releases packed in all the serials from their perspective runs, and combined this with a plethora of special features, new and old, in order to create truly comprehensive packages for Who fans. Season 18 is no different in this regard.
The restoration process here is not dissimilar to how Season 12 and 19 were upscaled to HD. However, unlike Season 19, there is no native HD content here, but the PAL studio footage and on-location footage does look suitably restored. The sound quality has also seen some improvements thanks to the work of Mark Ayres, who also provided a 5.1 Surround Sound mix for Warrior’s Gate.
This would mark the seventh and final season with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor as the lead. It ran for seven stories from 30th August 1980 to 21st March 1981 and featured two existing companions who would leave the show, whilst three would join. Despite being a season of finalities, it was also one that brought in a number of new and fresh inclusions. The main one here is a new producer, John Nathan-Turner, who would helm the series until its unfortunate cancellation in 1989.
He brought along a lot of changes to the formulas seen in the Graham Williams era (seasons 15-17) which had been considered as being too silly and comedic for some. Season 18 was a stark contrast, bringing in hard science-fiction, a more stoic portrayal of the Doctor and a then-revolutionary new title sequence, which dropped the traditional Delia Derbyshire theme in favour of an entirely new synth-led composition by Peter Howell. It featured inventive concepts and ideas, executed with a more serious tone, but still gave way for lighter moments and humour, particularly with the barmy Meglos.
For better or for worse, Doctor Who was changing as a sign of the times and would continue to do so when Season 19 came along. The villains occupying this season included the sinister Foamasi, the shape-shifting Meglos, Space Vampires (you heard correctly), and even a return of the Doctor’s deadliest foe, the Master, with Anthony Ainley making his debut in the role. Once again, I will be going through each serial and giving my honest thoughts on each of them.
The Leisure Hive
The Leisure Hive is a good representative of the change in tone and themes that Season 18 brought to Doctor Who. The story revolves around an intergalactic getaway known as The Leisure Hive which is run by the remaining members of the Argolian race. What I enjoyed about the story was that we’re given two races in the Argolins and the Foamasi, and both are shown to have characters on both the good and bad side of the moralistic scale. It’s a nice change of pace from the usual formula of protagonists and antagonist.
It’s also a very visually interesting story, and for the time has some impressive effects I.e. the multiplying Pangols. The make-up throughout is also a real highlight, especially the aged-up Tom Baker. The only problems I really had with this story was the beginning which, though wonderfully established with a nice panning shot of Brighton beach, only served to write K9 out of the story. I also felt the ending was very abrupt. All in all, this was a strong season opener and an impressive start to this review.
The one with the talking cactus, the time loop and a doctor doppelgänger. Once again Tom Baker is forced into extensive make-up as a sinister space cactus (or Zolfa-Thuran) impersonates The Doctor in an effort to steal the Dodecahedron, the main power source for Tigella. This is a story that isn’t well-revered and it’s easy to see why due to the ridiculousness of the premise and some of the other odd decisions like the blonde-wigged inhabitants and scruffy space pirates.
Despite this I found Meglos to be rather fun and seeing Jacqueline Hill, who played one of the earliest companions in Barbara Wright, portraying a religious fanatic who worships the dodecahedron was a nice touch. Meglos feels like a call-back to the Graham Williams era, and wouldn’t have felt out of place in Season 17. It’s a nice change of pace from the more sombre and serious tone of the rest of the season, and is, overall, a lot of fun.
Set on the swampy planet of Alzarius, Full Circle centres around a group of inhabitants who live a life of peace but constantly fear the mist fall, which as it turns out, results in beings known as the Marshmen to come out from the nearby swamps, culminating in a great cliff-hanger for part one. Full Circle begins what is known as the E-Space Trilogy, which spans this story and the next two, and is intriguing in that its signature monsters aren’t the main antagonistic force here. We instead have an oppressive system which conceals the truth from its citizens, allowing Baker a chance to show off an angrier side to the Doctor when he angrily dresses down the Deciders after the failed biopsy of a child Marshman.
The main flaw in this story involves a gaggle of teenage misfits who provide a rather weak link in the plot early on, and it is here that Adric, a companion who leaves a bad taste in a lot of Who fans’ mouth, is introduced. The character gets a bit of a rocky start here and doesn’t have much to do in the next two stories but, for me, gets better later on. Fascinatingly, this story was written by a then 18-year-old Andrew Smith, whose ideas of the current Alzarian’s being the evolved Marshmen who initially wiped out the Starliner crew amongst others, are very impressive. It makes for a thought-provoking tale that fits right in with 18’s themes.
State of Decay
This story was originally written by Terrance Dicks back in 1977 but was scrapped and left on the pile until John Nathan-Turner read it and several re-writes were made. It’s because of this that ‘State of Decay’ feels like a real throwback to the Gothic period of the fourth Doctor era and gives Tom Baker a final outing in the genre.
There are some intriguing ideas here with the “vampires” stagnating the planet’s societal evolution by containing them in a medieval setting and selectively ensuring they have enough blood to resurrect the Great Vampire. When said Great Vampire does emerge the effects are, unfortunately, very underwhelming. It’s the only misstep in an otherwise unique story.
Warrior’s Gate is a curio of fascinating ideas and some bold sci-fi elements that fit Season 18 well. It’s not an easy story to just jump into, especially as it has more continuity to it, being the final part of the E Space Trilogy and the final story for Romana and K9 Mk II. There are some striking visuals here as well, with the stark void and cobwebbed Gate making up for an admittedly average-looking spaceship set. The scenes with the Doctor and Biroc wandering around a greyscale gardened landscape is particularly ethereal.
For some, Warrior’s Gate is a confusing mess whilst for others, it’s a classic of the early 80s era. I personally think it’s a fine story, though at times feels a tad intricate to understand on a first view. This is why I think this second viewing has cast a more favourable light on the story than my initial viewing. Another flaw is that Romana’s exit, whilst built up throughout the season, felt rather abrupt. Warrior’s Gate is another fine and fascinating offering of science fiction, keeping in tone with the themes of Season 18 and being very inventive, if sometimes confusing, in the process.
The Keeper of Traken
This is the story from Season 18 that I’m most familiar with, due to owning the VHS years ago before buying the “New Beginnings” DVD boxset back in the late 2000s. It’s also one of my favourites, not just because of familiarity or nostalgia but because of the fairy-tale vibe it has. Traken tells the story of a peaceful planet threatened with an evil presence that supposedly dwells within Tremas, the man destined to inherit the position of the titular Keeper of Traken. The current Keeper tasks The Doctor and Adric with assisting him, though quickly turns on them when they arrive on the planet.
What follows from here is a power struggle with a decaying and dying Master at the centre of it all. I won’t spoil how he ends up in the story, but needless to say, my young self never saw it coming. The story itself is rather simple but is executed in an enjoyable manner, as it doesn’t overcomplicate itself and serves as a good lead into Baker’s final story, Logopolis.
The final outing for Tom Baker and the fourth Doctor, this story is a culmination of Season 18s themes, dealing with death, entropy, hard science-fiction concepts and even gives us some nice moments between Adric and the fourth Doctor, a chemistry I wish was explored further but we seldom got with the fifth Doctor in Season 19. Logopolis has the Doctor avoid responsibility by attempting to fix the Tardis’ chameleon circuit. His idea to materialise around a real police box and get the measurements leads to The Master trapping him and then causing problems for the Logopians, a race of mystical mathematicians who chant calculations to keep the universe stable. It’s a concept that requires a watch or two to really understand, a signature of Bidmead’s writing in some ways.
When the Master manages to silence the Logopians it causes chaos as the planet starts to collapse and entropy begins taking over. This is because their calculations were used to power Charged Vacuum Emboitments (CVEs) which were used to funnel off excess entropy from the universe to prevent its approaching heat death. Without the CVEs, entropy is taking over. The Master and the Doctor end up joining forces, (with the latter picks up a mouthy air stewardess, Tegan, along the way after her Aunt was murdered by The Master.)
They decide to use the radio telescope of the Pharos Project, but the Master betrays their plan which leads to the Doctor sacrificing his life to disable the broadcasted threat that The Master tried to enforce. What follows is my personal favourite regeneration in Doctor Who as the Watcher, a white-faced entity that has been staking the Doctor throughout the story, touches and merges with the dying Doctor. He then emerges as a younger man, ushering out a seven-year run from arguably the most popular incarnation of the titular Timelord. It’s a fine final outing, and a fitting end to Season 18, of which the tone and themes wouldn’t be explored in the same way again.
Meglos (it’s still a lot of fun though!)
Full Circle, The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis
Check out the second part of the review when it releases, which features a rundown of the packaging, special features and audio/visual details.
By HW Reynolds
Images provided by BBC