Part One of Our Two-Part Review!
Season 17 of Doctor Who was the final one of the 1970s, a decade which saw great success with its two Doctors and their respective eras. Season 17 was also a turning point for the Graham Williams era, and would also be his last as a Producer. It saw a new script editor in the form of Douglas Adams, a renowned author who had previously written for the series in Season 16.
His influence on the series can be seen with the more comedic edge that stories took, which when Tom Baker’s growing influence on the production had mixed results, likewise with the sets as they were affected by inflation and a tighter budget – an issue which affected previous seasons as well.
I came into this season wanting to re-evaluate it due to my overall thoughts being less than enthusiastic, especially as this season does have its high points like introducing Lalla Ward as Romana II, whose chemistry with the Doctor in this season is great and also the brilliant City of Death, and a finally realised six-episode version of the never-completed story, Shada.
Destiny of the Daleks
It had been over four years since the Daleks had appeared, and whilst Terry Nation was busy with Blake 7 at the time he was determined to write for the series when the idea of bringing the iconic enemy back was suggested. Despite this though Destiny features heavy rewrites from script editor Douglas Adams, mainly because Mary Tamm’s Romana had to be replaced but there’s also some added levity to an otherwise fairly dark storyline.
The Daleks themselves sadly don’t fare that well in this story, mainly because the props are in a bit of a state throughout the story and David Gooderson’s Davros, though amiably performed, also suffers from the mask not fitting properly and a lack of voice modulation, which is fixed for this BD release thanks to Mark Ayres’ great work on a new 5.1 surround mix.
The new modulation works wonders for helping me appreciate Gooderson’s performance more and makes me wonder why they didn’t do this originally. It doesn’t particularly help the characters’ role in Destiny though as all menace once held is negated with The Doctor wheeling him around to upbeat plinky-plonky music. Though it’s a shame Gooderson didn’t get another chance with the role onscreen the trailer for this box set let the actor portray a more effective character.
The Movellans though are a great concept and work well despite their…eccentric wigs and appearance. The introduction of Romana II is also welcome and Lalla Ward quickly fits into the series. I’ll also give a nice mention to the more atmospheric approach to the music, which is minimal throughout. Overall, Destiny is a Dalek story that despite a strong atmosphere in places is sadly one of their less memorable outings.
City of Death
A triumph of the late 70’s era of Doctor Who, City of Death is a fascinating concept, seeing an alien being split into various fragments scattered throughout earth history, and whose scheming sees duplicate Mona Lisa’s being made and bizarre experiments being conducted in a chateau basement.
This story notably saw the highest viewing figures the series had seen (likely due to ITV being on strike at the time) with over sixteen million viewers tuning in to watch episode 4.
The guest cast here is also great, with Julian Glover hamming it up nicely as the villainous count Scarleoni, whilst Catherine Schell plays well as a woman unknowing to her partners’ deadly secrets. Fist-happy Duggan (Tom Chadbon) is wonderfully dry and would have made for a good companion. He accompanies The Doctor and Romana II on the adventure, often using brute force to solve any problems that arise.
There’s also the notable featuring of acclaimed actors John Cleese and Eleanor Bron, who cameo as patrons witnessing the Tardis dematerialising in the Louvre and Peter Halliday making his fifth appearance in the series as a disgruntled soldier.
City of Death is a story that is beloved for good reason, and rewatching it for this review was a joy, and I can’t get enough of the score from Dudley Simpson, who turns in arguably his finest work for the series. The story represents one of the high points for the Graham Williams era and showcased his creative talents as he put together a fine script alongside Douglas Adams (with ideas from David Fisher).
The Creature from the Pit
The Doctor, Romana II and a newly repaired K9 (voiced by David Brierley in this season) answer a distress call from the planet Chloris, which is made up of thick jungles and has a notable lack of metal, but just how does this tie into the sinister rule of Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances) and a creature which lurks in the pits of the planet.
The story also sees Season 17 taking a more comedic turn, especially from The Doctor’s actions and Tom Baker presumably being allowed to improvise more. These aspects are hit and miss throughout the story but Creature does have its merits including solid jungle sets and sturdy direction from Christopher Barry, for whom this would the final story he directed but found the production to be a nadir in his Doctor Who career.
It is a shame that the titular creature comes across perhaps more phallic than intended, especially with The Doctor’s attempt at communicating with it, but the costume work and sets as mentioned before are more convincing and provide Creature with some merits I perhaps had overlooked upon initial viewing, with Writer David Fisher providing some solid ideas.
Nightmare of Eden
Nightmare of Eden deals with uncommon themes for Doctor Who including drug smuggling as a collision between an interstellar cruise ship The Empress and the trade ship Hectate uncovers a sinister plot involving the smuggling of drugs and the appearance of creatures known as Mandrils which seemingly threaten everyone on board.
It is perhaps the Mandrils themselves that stand out, though more so because of their lumbering about and how un-sinister they look under the studio lights. A shame too as in some sequences they do hold some menace but are otherwise hard to take seriously.
Despite this setback veteran writer Bob Baker delivers some interesting concepts including a device known as a CET (Continual Event Transmuter) which stores portions of planets on electromagnetic crystals. This combined with the projections forming actual environments makes for some entertaining sequences on the titular Eden, in which the otherwise often Cuddly Mandrils pose more of a threat.
Though the central monsters aren’t great the cast and story do hold up and I found myself enjoying Nightmare of Eden for what it had to offer, even if it doesn’t quite all work, especially as it deals with themes rarely seen before or since in the series. The new optional special effects for the story are also sympathetic and add to the proceedings.
The Horns of Nimon
Originally meant to be a cost-saving story in preparation for the bigger finale Shada (more on that in a bit) Nimon is perhaps one of the more notorious stories of the Williams era, filled with over-the-top performances and more cuddly-looking lumbering aliens in the form of the bull-headed Nimons.
The Nimons form a tenuous link to Greek mythology and are in communication with the megalomaniac leader of the planet Skonnos, Soldeed, who is sacrificing the young inhabitants of a nearby planet Aneth to the Nimons and also providing valuable crystals for sinister reasons.
It is these elements and more that will determine whether you enjoy this story or find it too over-the-top. I personally found the story to be uneven in this aspect but there is an almost b-movie quality to the proceedings, especially with guest actor Graham Crowden (Soldeed) delivering a very off-kilter performance, complete with a death scene that’s impossible to take seriously (Crowden apparently smiled during it as he had mistaken the main take for a rehearsal.)
There are elements to the story that work, like Romana having a lot to do and the young Nimon tributes (including future Blue Peter host Janet Ellis) being fairly likeable. Ultimately though,l my enjoyment for the story came more from the elements that didn’t really work, which leaves me with mixed thoughts overall.
Shada was meant to be the six-part finale for Season 17, a Douglas Adam-penned epic that would have seen the writer return to his Cambridge roots. Unfortunately, due to industrial strikes filming for the serial was ultimately abandoned, leaving Nimon as the final story for season 17 and a stumble into the 1980s.
Over the years several attempts have been made to present and release Shada including a VHS release which filled in the gaps with Tom Baker in character explaining what happened within the missing scenes. In 2017, an animated feature-length version of the story was released and would act as the basis for the new six-part release I am reviewing here.
This new six-part version works very nicely and the story feels better realised overall. The blending of animation and the existing material that was filmed before the strikes cancelled the serial come together to tell an interesting narrative involving a mad scientist Skagra (Christopher Neame) who is trying to create a sort of universal hive mind.
This brings the Doctor and Romana into the story as they visit Cambridge to meet an old friend, Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey) a time lord posing as a professor at St. Cedd’s College. He had sent a distress signal but is unsure as to when it was sent (the story explains this later), and also causes trouble owing to having taken an ancient Gallifeyian tome to earth and letting a student Daniel Hill (Chris Parsons) borrow it.
Having only previously seen the incomplete 1992 VHS release it was nice having the gaps filled in with new animation, complete with most of the actors reprising their roles, to allow Shada to act as a nice end to both the Graham Williams era and to Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor – the ending that sadly never came to be back in 1980. The Cambridge sequences are a real highlight here too, especially the bike chase.
Best Story: City of Death
Worst Story: The Horns of Nimon
Must see: City of Death, Shada
Check out Part Two of the review, which features a rundown of the packaging, special features and audio/visual details as well as a final review score.
By HW Reynolds
Images Courtesy of the BBC