Originally broadcast back in 1985 the BBC recently released The Two Doctors as part of their ongoing range of restored Doctor Who titles. Graham Nelson offers his thoughts on this set inside…
The Talons of Weng-Chiang, that swaggeringly confident story of sinister goings-on in Victorian London (released on a stunning DVD earlier this year), was a unique serial in that all three of the final three producers of “Doctor Who” worked on it: Philip Hinchcliffe (no. 7), outgoing; Graham Williams (no. 8), shadowing him; and a young budget-manager called John Nathan-Turner (no. 9), mopping up buckets of red ink. Put another way, March 1977 saw the last infusion of new blood into the programme’s management, which cannot be healthy. Nathan-Turner, at heart an impresario with great practical skill for getting acts together, became producer in 1979 and the last decade was all his. He made some first-rate serials, right up to the Indian summer of the final season. But around 1984 something – not everything, but something – went badly wrong, and The Two Doctors is one of his most depressing efforts. Nobody would nominate it for the hotly contested title of worst serial of the 1980s, but as most wasted opportunity it has no rival.
The longest serial, in minutes of screen-time, since 1979, it should have been an epic, packed with event. Instead it has a few nice moments. The Doctor’s mid-1980s incarnation (Colin Baker) and his late 1960s incarnation (Patrick Troughton) each visit the same space station, one sent on a mission, the other arriving by accident. Super-villains teaming up in a Marvel Comics because-they-can sort of way quickly move the action to a hacienda in Spain, where the two Doctors, the two companions and the five bad guys hide out in the hills, meeting only three actual Spaniards (two of whom they kill immediately). Will the Doctor’s genetic ability to stabilise time travel fall into the wrong hands, or rather, the wrong DNA? Will instability spread through the Universe? Will the Androgums casserole companions Jamie and Peri with a cheap Rioja? The music is obvious (Spain equals flamenco, soldiers equal drumbeats) but does the job nicely. The cast are well up to the task. Episode 1 is interesting, and there’s some lovely foody dialogue in episode 3, the middle of which is quite fun. But that is all that can be said. Even the blurb on the back of the box can only bring itself to call the serial “a league above most other stories of its time”, not you may think a ringing endorsement. In truth it was let down by incoherent aims, patchy writing, uninspired visuals and poor direction. It was a waste of its budget, and this DVD release is a study of television failure.
Let me say at once that the superb DVDs of Doctor Who are a model of what all archival releases could be. Who, which was cheap in life, is deluxe in death. These are DVDs by and for fans, and they have humour, imagination and a cheerful insouciance about telling it straight. It’s all a bit of fun, but also out to break new ground. The BBC is reputedly not making much money here but, and one hopes it realises this, it is adding lasting value to the archival holdings of an intellectual property that shows no sign of going away. Moreover if these documentaries are not made now, they never will be, since the stars of golden-age Doctor Who are passing away. Think how much better it would have been if the Complete Shakespeare had been annotated when those who knew him were still alive, instead of two centuries later. Shakespeare it ain’t, but it bears fair comparison to trad jazz, another taste once thought childish in grown-ups. Record companies of the 1950s noticed that a dozen sides Louis Armstrong blew in an evening back in 1931 had gone from being obscure and ephemeral to being obscure and the basis of a tradition. Definitive re-issues, they suddenly realised, would sell – not perhaps in vast quantities, but indefinitely. The change of format made it possible to attract enthusiasts all over again, with scholarly sleeve notes and a completist collector’s outlook. DVD, for Doctor Who, has been what the LP was for jazz.
Even if you don’t buy the cultural history argument, packages of extras like these have also edged up the standards of BBC Worldwide’s other releases (Paul Vanezis, one of those involved, shot a useful documentary for I Claudius release, for instance), so be thankful even if you don’t care for Who. And for those of us who do enjoy the show – and we are everywhere and all around you, in your villages, at your place of work, even in your House of Commons – these are the richest and most thoughtful DVDs on the market, and television historians of the future will be grateful.
I have already used the DVD reviewer’s dismissive shorthand by referring to “extras”. Here, the extras are the point. The secondary option, which you might never bother to take, is watching the original raw show with none of its annotations. The true point of this double-disc set becomes apparent as soon as you look at the menu screens. Six, count them, six half-hour features. The effort that has gone in will make you weep: whether with joy or despair will depend on your view of the programme in question, but you will not be left unmoved. We get the show itself, painstakingly cleaned and repaired; a commentary by the director and all four surviving lead actors; an isolated soundtrack; informational subtitles which continuously fill in facts about actors, location and scripts, noting cut lines and so forth (admittedly also that Amsterdam is in Holland and Paris in France); a little-known but related mini-Who episode shot for a slot on the wish-fulfilment-for-kids show Jim’ll Fix It; two half-hour programmes of alternate takes and raw footage from the London studio and from Spain, respectively; a piece to camera by Gary Downie, who scouted the Spanish locations and was to become a fixture in the show’s final years (“Home in on a pub. They’re excellent for finding locations”); an interview-led documentary, by Richard Molesworth, profiling the writer Robert Holmes; and a photo gallery (with a whimsically spooky soundtrack). Oh, and a schools radio programme going behind the scenes of studio filming for The Two Doctors, a fascinatingly patronising piece. DJ Andy Peebles, remember him? “I asked Cathy on your behalf just how you go about getting a job in TV makeup.” Bonus marks for “on your behalf” there, Andy. Or for the boys, “ideas there if you’ve got a synthesiser at your school and you’d like to make your own sound effects.” On being interviewed in 1984 Colin Baker relaxes into a tightish, plummy London accent and so, more surprisingly, does co-star Nicola Bryant. “There’s no danger of the show becoming repetitive,” says producer John Nathan-Turner, a point which I fear we shall have to come back to. Oh, and the exploding-star bang at the end of the closing Doctor Who title music comes in the wrong place, jerking you out of your chair in the style of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony.
Non-fans will find about half of it interesting, reflecting that at least these are not insipid TV spots made as advertising – they are genuinely retrospective. Hard-core fans will be mesmerised, not least by the curious way that the makers of 1970s episodes interview today as severe, saturnine, unrelaxed figures – Philip Hinchcliffe, who looked at the time like a head boy at a public school, now looks like a housemaster at one – whereas the makers of 1980s episodes come over as deeply easy-going and faintly camp. In short the package being offered is not a lame old TV show so much as a critique and historical analysis of one, supported by contemporary materials. When I say that The Two Doctors is without merit as drama, I also urge you to buy the DVD at once. Go on, order these discs (it’s a double) online, right now. Before I put you off again.
To set the scene. It is February 1985, and the book of Doctor Who is coming to a close. Indeed, with the broadcast of the serial The Two Doctors, we have already reached page 476 of the 550-page Doctor Who: The Television Companion, and the rest won’t be a cheery read. The show will linger until 1988 but even by 1985 it is evident that all is not well behind the scenes. This is partly because all is not well in the BBC. Money is tight, breakfast television is tightening it further, and the arrival of Channel 4 has upset the old order. The writing is on the wall for in-house drama production. And as every Doctor Who fan knows, Nemesis has arrived: Michael Grade has barged in from London Weekend Television, via Hollywood, to kick BBC1 into shape. Later in 1985 Grade will cancel, then postpone and eventually reprieve Doctor Who – an event known in the extensive secondary literature of Doctor Who as “the hiatus”. In this literature, Grade generally appears as some kind of visigoth sacking Rome, and he certainly didn’t spare anybody’s feelings or respect any niceties. The most capable scheduler of the day, he thought television sci-fi was passé: but this was by no means the lone opinion of an outsider. His drama chief, BBC insider Jonathan Powell, increasingly didn’t see the point either: and he had produced such critical and popular genre-fiction hits as Smiley’s People. They have become infamous for winding down Doctor Who, but it might also be said that if you cannot convince people like Jonathan Powell that you are making good television, it may be because you are not making good television. Anyway, he went on to work for Channel 5, so has been punished enough.
But whatever dark clouds were gathering, The Two Doctors was commissioned and produced before a drop of rain had fallen. It belongs to the last days of the old BBC1, the sleepy one whose schedule was full of ridiculous start and end times for programmes, never on the hour or half-hour – indeed The Two Doctors went out at 17.20-18.05. This was the BBC1 controlled by ex-BBC Sport boss Alan Hart, who took little interest in drama, and whose new head of serials (Jonathan Powell again) routinely approved Who scripts without objection, as he did this one. Alan Hart took the decision to rejuvenate the format as a run of 13 fifty-minute episodes (the producer beat him down to 13 by 45, for budget reasons) and run it in a slot where it followed another science-fiction show which had run for the three months before, so that, as in the 1970s, sci-fi adventure would be a fixture on a Saturday afternoon right through autumn and winter.
In 1984, then, the problem was not that the BBC institutionally disliked science fiction. (That would be the problem later on, but it wasn’t yet.) In fact it was injecting a great deal of money and expertise, but all of it into the other show mentioned above, a lavish, earnest adaptation of John Christopher’s Tripods novels, with visual effects which, if infrequent, are audacious. Compare the mostly convincing shots of the silver Tripods standing hundreds of feet high, horses running around their feet, water splashing as they strode across lakes, live actors lifted soaringly high by their tentacles – compare these to the miserable sight in The Two Doctors of the Sontaran spaceship, a disco glitterball rolling through the air in a pathetically unconvincing overlay, while people nowhere near make a sad pretence of ducking. Both effects used the new Quantel video compositing machine, but in the same way that a professional artist and the average six-year-old both use a paint brush.
But the problem was not money either. True, Doctor Who was always a complex and trying show to bring to the screen, harder every year, and there was never “enough” money. But there were occasional opportunities and in autumn 1984 one had turned up: a new slot, a new format, a new cast and a free hand to exploit it. (This lax supervision would change later on.) Yet the producers never seriously considered the idea of radical change, even when told to a year later. The problem with mid-1980s Doctor Who, in the end, is the lack of imagination that comes from total exhaustion.
Individual drama shows in the 1970s and early 1980s were run out of tiny offices in big organisations, exactly the reverse arrangement to today’s. In 1984 and 1985 the creative team amounted, really, to just two people, both having held their jobs too long. Theirs was a prickly relationship: producer John Nathan-Turner, script editor Eric Saward. Both were obsessives and both had a vision, but not the same one. Although that tension had served the show well before, now it was making incongruous, unpleasing television. Consider that, on the one hand, the six serials of 1984-5 star schmaltzy, light-entertainment soap and drama actors (fresh from Dynasty, Howard’s Way and Blankety Blank). And on the other hand they are about cybernetic body modification, torture and animal transmutation, brain surgery and plant transmutation, cannibalism and surgical alteration, grafting bodies onto animal flesh and, lastly, reprocessing corpses as food. We should be thankful they skipped necrophilia, really. The Two Doctors is the fourth of those: cannibalism. You could say that the season has a theme – ethical issues of the human body, and what science can do to it. But that would suggest planning. What really happened was that Eric Saward’s writing became more ghoulish at the same time as some new writers interested in biology (Philip Martin, Pip and Jane Baker) were hired. At any rate the blend of boy’s-own-adventure and wry humour has been replaced by a blend of macho suffering and camp performance, while lapses of taste are everywhere. In The Two Doctors alone, people are stabbed, smothered with poison, tortured, tenderised and subjected to operations without anaesthetic. Meanwhile, a chef with clown’s makeup and an electric carving knife tries to slice away Jamie’s bottom and Peri’s breasts for his dinner, a meal which, let’s face it, will not do his cholesterol count any favours.
My subject is Meat, and the pity of Meat
So the makers are not getting along with each other. You can look at this from either angle.
Saward’s problem as script editor is that he is stuck in a low-paid trainee assignment for young writers going somewhere, only he isn’t. He wants to be a deputy producer but there is no such post. This is a tableau you can see in any office anywhere. In fact, you can see it in The Office, and I like to picture Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner as Gareth Keenan and David Brent, the one obsessed with soldiers and mercenaries, the other convinced of his gifts as an entertainer. A less comedic side is Nathan-Turner’s paranoia about Saward becoming chummy with the writers, as in the affair of the pink paper on which Robert Holmes typed one of his scripts to amuse Saward, an eye-opening tale related in one of the documentaries. Saward also has a further problem in that the list of early-1980s writers no longer prepared to work for Nathan-Turner is lengthening. (Though he doesn’t know it yet, it is a list he is about to join.) Reliable scripts are thin on the ground, and what does arrive needs intensive reworking. He’s writing too much and is burning out. Nathan-Turner never understands this.
But Nathan-Turner is also in a quandary. A showman with a showman’s regard for stardust, he doubles as a successful producer of pantomimes, which is harder to do than many people think. His acclaimed remodelling of the programme – with synthesised rather than acoustic music, computer graphics, alien worlds with Habitat pastel-coloured skies, shiny high-white TARDIS interiors – is now only the same old look. He claims 110 million viewers worldwide, but only 6 million are British and paying the license fee. He needs to make drama which casual viewers can drop into and feel at home with. He needs to get the cast onto chat shows and into the tabloids. He needs family entertainment, which is why he indulges his penchant for recapturing the glories of 70s TV by hiring its stars. Landing recognisable actors lends credibility and makes for good trailers. Sometimes he forces inappropriate castings on his directors, true, but mostly it works well: Tristan from All Creatures Great and Small, the youthful Peter Davison, was a much-liked Doctor. Anthony Ainley from The Pallisers and Upstairs Downstairs makes a worthy regenerated Master. In short, Nathan-Turner badly needs to pull in audiences, to make the show fun for all ages, and scripts are only one aspect among many in all that. Saward never understands this.
Their professional partnership will collapse in something like a nervous breakdown in another eighteen months, after which they will never speak to each other again: there will be no Queen Victoria-figure to force them to make up, as in the notorious row over the carpet which split Gilbert from Sullivan. (Though Nathan-Turner will be generous in his memoirs.) But at the time of The Two Doctors they are mugging along, partly by avoiding each other. A problem they are both in denial about is that Nathan-Turner’s scheme for hiring 1970s faces has come a cropper with 1984’s new Doctor, Colin Baker. Baker is a subtle and dedicated actor (he spars rather well with Anthony Hopkins in War and Peace, for instance), but he had got the gig for his role as a love rat in popular mid-70s drama-soap The Brothers. The equivalent today would be casting someone who had been in EastEnders but quite some time ago, and Nathan-Turner had greatly overestimated the public appeal.
Colin Baker: No surrender
Throughout his 1984-5 season, Colin Baker commendably tries to find a serious reading of his part, and he often comes close to real success, despite struggling with variable scripts written for a much better-loved actor – his predecessor, Peter Davison. But Baker’s endeavour is cruelly misunderstood by the viewing public, because he is being relentlessly undermined. Dressed like a garden gnome, or a Toby jug, he has to wear the same signature outfit each week, as if he were Dennis the Menace. Even in the many crash-zooms onto his face, that staple of Who cinematography, the costume undercuts him by the big red question marks on his collar. Captain Query! Or maybe his sidekick – the Quizzical Kid! Nathan-Turner’s defence of this anti-mimetic costuming policy was that it brought in income from merchandising dolls. Well, maybe: the economics of Doctor Who has been too little studied to be sure. But it’s hard to believe this income was ever worth what it cost.
All these contradictory visions could still sometimes fuse into something inspired. Vengeance on Varos was intelligently played by Baker, while a Sawardly bleak future was redeemed by a luminously warm performance by Martin Jarvis and the children were entertained by a deliciously villainous Nabil Shaban, guest stars Nathan-Turner had landed. But The Two Doctors did not benefit from creative tension because there was, unfortunately, one thing on which the whole production office agreed: that the show’s glorious heritage should be celebrated, referenced, re-enacted. Nathan-Turner may have been becoming a marginal figure at the BBC, convenient because nobody else wanted to produce Who, negligible because nobody wanted him to produce anything else. But on the conference circuit in America, which at that time was a vast jamboree, he was a hero. Or a villain. But anyway a significant figure. The sudden rise of Doctor Who as a chiefly American cult combined with the arrival of video recorders and the phenomenon of the hard-core fan was born. Not least because he dearly loved Doctor Who himself, Nathan-Turner began playing to this gallery.
Most of the show’s producers and script editors never once checked a reel of old episodes out of the archive, which is one reason much of the archive was accidentally destroyed, and they knew little of its heritage. But for the six stories of 1984-5, Saward and Nathan-Turner brought back four old villains (and one recent one), one old Doctor (two if you count the life-sized portrait of Jon Pertwee which is a plot device in Timelash) and one old companion, besides revisiting the location of 1963’s first-ever episode into the bargain. A telling comparison is that Colin Baker starred in altogether 11 serials, 8 of which featured returning villains; while Tom Baker (no relation) had starred in 42 serials… 8 of which featured returning villains. Partly, I suspect, Nathan-Turner thought of the monsters and guest stars of the show as a sort of theatrical troupe, just as he liked to think of his directors and designers and regular extras as one big circus family. But even the diehard fans began to see it as self-indulgence. In the opening seconds of The Two Doctors, we see Patrick Troughton’s Doctor and his sidekick Jamie in black and white, until the colour fades up. It wasn’t meant to evoke the 1960s, in the way that the washed-out colour grade of Band of Brothers was meant to evoke the 1940s. It was a great big wink at the camera.
What does this mean?
In The Two Doctors, it’s the Sontarans who are back. Very much in the bronze medal position after the Daleks and the Cybermen, the Sontarans are stocky, wear silvery space suits with wonky collars and have heads like jacket potatoes too long in the microwave. A clone race of warriors, they hold stratospheric military ranks, generally Field-Marshal and up. Though as we only ever see two at once, we begin to wonder if there are really any private soldiers in this army at all, or if it’s just a couple of guys who really should get out more. They prance around, acting badly and pretending to be British Army officers with little sticks, but have nothing to do except pout and give butch little hisses about how military they are. I kept thinking of Graham Chapman in Monty Python. With arms akimbo, they look still more fatuous, so are at their best posing with helmet under one arm, like Neil Armstrong. Admittedly, it must have been hellish wearing those costumes at 118 Fahrenheit, and they don’t give the actor very much scope. Surprise – turn upper body around at the shoulder. Rage – turn upper body around at the shoulder. Guilty adoration mingled with sorrow – well, all right, it’s true that Sontaran parts tend not to need a wide emotional register anyway. In fact, the Sontarans don’t connect with Doctor Who at all since their only motivation is to achieve strategic advantage in some great battle plan, whereas the programme’s format is necessarily always about oddball goings-on in confined locations. This is all too vividly demonstrated in The Two Doctors:
Every hour is precious to me, Dastari! My Ninth Group is now forming up for a vital battle in the Medolin Cluster. If successful, it could change the course of the war. So it is imperative that I be there to lead them to victory.
So why aren’t you there, you imbecile? Even after viewing twice in the last week (the things I do for you) I’m at a loss to understand what the Sontarans think they can accomplish in Spain.
1980s Sontarans surprised us with ZZ Top beards
If memory serves, the Sontarans had appeared three times before. A man called Robert Holmes concocted one for a late Jon Pertwee serial, then another hastily returned for a quickie story as a budgetary convenience, since the costume was still made up: a few years later a bunch more of them failed to invade time in “The Invasion of Time”.
A man called Robert Holmes… A totemic figure, the single most prolific writer of Who episodes, and many would say the best. BBC Worldwide must agree: Holmes wrote only slightly over ten per cent of the episodes of Doctor Who, spread over eighteen years, but already accounts for five of the seventeen DVDs chosen for release. An ex-London policeman, he had a cynical bent. He turned the Time Lords from other-worldly, vaguely Buddhist monks into something more like the Nixon administration. He wrote with a Dickensian, florid passion, overflowing and overstepping. He loved the gothic, the storm-tossed, the oriental. As the opening montage of Richard Molesworth’s intelligent documentary points out, the man in the iron mask lurked always in his shadows. Better than the series he worked for, but too unassuming to try his luck as a serious playwright, he achieved posterity of a sort after all through a surprising number of immortal television moments.
He also wrote boring hack-work, with a glum professionalism, when his heart wasn’t in it, and The Two Doctors is a case in point. It started as a story which might just have worked: a tale about elusive alien gourmands, who visit New Orleans every few years to prey on human flesh, a tale driven by a horror and fear of meat – Holmes was a vegetarian. But then Nathan-Turner’s deal for New Orleans filming collapsed, so they rewrote for Venice, then rewrote again for Seville, where by all accounts they had a jolly time with larks aplenty. The plantation house became a hacienda, the gourmand’s quarter of New Orleans became one (1) local restaurant, and all of the best jokes about Americanisms and the British were cut, while nothing much about Spain was put in its place. By this point Holmes didn’t care any more, understandably I think, but script editor Saward is less excusable for failing to save the day as a script editor should. And so the gourmands visit Spain entirely by accident, not knowing Earth at all. Food-obsessed aliens who like their meat off the bone, they are called Androgums: an anagram of gourmands you see, which makes one wonder what Sontarans might be an anagram of. Stars Onan would appear to fit the occasion.
The story manages to waste its two biggest assets, Patrick Troughton and the Spanish location, right up until the third and final part where both suddenly blossom. Episode one is set aboard a climbing frame, supposedly a space station interior, from which Troughton maddeningly disappears early on, not to return for an achingly long time. Episode two takes place in the cellar of a hacienda, but – and the director, Peter Moffatt, must have been cruelly disappointed – it turns out to look like any other cellar. There is much talk of being only four miles from Seville, and after a while you just long for the characters to stop strapping each other to chairs and get up and go for a walk. Instead they mooch about in the sort of holiday farmhouse which sounded so idyllic in the small ad but where you realise on arrival that you are going to be bored senseless within a day. The courtyard is telegenic, but the rest looks drab, and the cameras can’t cope with the brightness of the sky, so the location film looks washed-out and in need of a colour grade. In the finale, which could have made wonderful use of Seville, just as Arc of Infinity and City of Death had so elegantly employed Amsterdam and Paris, we see only a couple of cobbled squares and then… “Down to the cellars! You know the way, I think.”
Two big assets the director did not tuck away are those of Nicola Bryant, the current Doctor Who girl in 1984-5. As a sassy American called Peri, she would have made a useful sidekick in a more modern show like Buffy. Fresh out of drama school she had an affecting, nuanced performance of vulnerability and toughness, and very convincing in facial expressions – important in a show requiring you to be visibly scared, to pretend to see the end of the universe and such. Unfortunately even today my eyes seldom get as high as her face, not when her embonpoint is so generous, so honey-coloured, so available. Poor Nicola. In The Two Doctors the camera takes every opportunity to look down her “blouse”, a knotted handkerchief, or to catch the flare of her bottom when she swoons to the floor as Doctor Who companions must. The first time is amusingly racy, but after about the third gratuitous flash you just want to lend the poor girl a woolly jumper. It made me think of one of Dennis Potter’s last television plays, about a video editor whose obsessive attention to shots of the film’s heroine is compared to rape. John Nathan-Turner’s personal life suggests that he was not, shall we say, personally motivated, but he was determined to have “something for the Dads”, so the result was not very different from that of Gene Roddenberry’s notorious costume approval meetings for Star Trek girls. But in those stories the girls were just a kind of spangled statuary, whereas Peri has to cut it as a principal actor. The effect is not just dated but offensively so, like the blacking-up on old variety shows. Oh, and between takes the floor manager calls her “my love”.
As for the rest of the cast, Jacqueline Pearce looks chubbier than she did in her classic ice-queen role as President Servalan in Blake’s Seven, thanks to an unwise Princess Leia wig. She is required to show a bestial nature gradually breaking through a mannered surface. Well, they should have hired an actress instead. (In her commentary, in which the word “darling” serves as an all-purpose punctuation mark, she observes that her performance is just Servalan in a different frock. Colin Baker essays a gallant protest, but is comically hard put to think of a convincing refutation.) Veteran actor Laurence Payne, as ill-advised scientist Dastari, is actually quite good, but it’s all for nothing because they give him a pair of oversized sunglasses reminiscent of Brains from Thunderbirds. Also, I’ve met several Nobel prize-winners, and so far as I remember none of them were wearing PVC suits with shoulder-pads. John Stratton and James Saxon certainly enjoy themselves, as a cannibal chef and a resting actor respectively, but both are such hugely self-indulgent roles that it’s all a bit like giving a five-year-old an unlimited supply of Maltesers, and neither of them knows when to stop.
Well, I know when to stop. In one of his most celebrated fluffed lines the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, warns that if his companions are not careful they will end up as “two cinders floating about in Spain!”. No better epitaph could be found for The Two Doctors.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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