Greatest TV Seasons: Doctor Who Season Thirteen (1975/76)
What is the greatest season of your favourite TV series? And what makes it stand out from those seasons around it? Every fan will have their own opinion of what is great and what isn't and here at The Digital Fix, our team of writers are going to complete the possibly impossible task of selecting what season of their favourite shows makes the cut above all others.
After we kicked things off with a look at the fifth series of the modern incarnation of Doctor Who (or 31 for purists), we head back to the classic era. Doctor Who has been around longer than many reading this have been alive, myself included, and of the original show’s twenty-six seasons, several have claims to be the best.
There’s the first, of course. If it hadn’t been a success – from its second story especially, with the introduction of the Daleks – I wouldn’t be writing this now (and Baz Greenland wouldn’t have written about the new show’s fifth series). Then there’s the fourth season, which introduced the concept of regeneration, as First Doctor William Hartnell metamorphosed into his successor Patrick Troughton. It could easily have wound up then with Hartnell’s forced retirement from ill health after three years, and the show would be a fondly-remembered item of 1960s science fiction instead of the global phenomenon it became and remains. Then there’s Season Seven, one of the most extensive reboots the show ever had, and the only point in Classic Who where the entire principal cast was replaced: a new Doctor, now in colour, with seasons running half a year instead of almost all of one, and the exile-to-Earth and UNIT scenarios which dominated much of the Third Doctor Jon Pertwee’s five years in the role. All important turning points, but the best?
I haven’t gone for any of the Sixties seasons; while I have watched every episode known to survive, we can’t fairly judge those seasons, as ninety-seven episodes are currently lost and I’m not old enough to have seen those episodes at the time. I was tempted by season seven, the first Pertwee season, but in many ways it’s atypical, and the seven-part serial (three out of the four stories) is something the show moved away from, although those three stories have many great moments between them. No, I’m going for what we now call the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. While I didn’t call it that at the time – we didn’t of course know how long it would last – I did know their names, as I was a reader of end credits even then.
Robert Holmes (1926-1986) began writing for the show in the 1960s, though it’s fair to say that The Krotons and the mostly-lost The Space Pirates are not among the greatest Doctor Who of the time. But he came in to his own in the next decade, with the new Doctor’s first story, Spearhead from Space, and its sequel Terror of the Autons, strong drama unafraid of being scary, in a show which had a long tradition of young audiences hiding behind sofas. With Pertwee’s departure, Holmes took over as script editor from Terrance Dicks with Tom Baker’s second story, The Ark in Space. He found a kindred spirit in a new, young, producer, Philip Hinchcliffe (born 1944 and the only Classic Doctor Who producer still with us, as I write this).
Hinchcliffe and Holmes took the show in a much darker, more Gothic, direction, while still science fiction, aiming at older children and their parents. The audiences responded, with viewing figures – in the days when you watched the show at the time of broadcast, or you missed it – often passing ten million. While their first season still had a few of Dicks and outgoing producer Barry Letts’s fingerprints on it, and two returning foes in the shape of the Daleks and the Cybermen, Holmes and Hinchcliffe came into their own in their next two seasons. It’s worth mentioning that in those two seasons, there wasn’t a single returning monster, something the show has fallen back on rather too often over the years.
However, it wouldn’t last. Morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse did not like this new scarier Doctor Who at all, and she had the show in her sights. She won a victory in Season fourteen over the cliffhanger of episode three of The Deadly Assassin, for which the BBC issued an apology. Holmes and Hinchliffe departed the show (though Holmes would still write for it on occasion) and it continued in a more toned-down version, lighter and aimed more at younger viewers. Watching at the time, I sensed that something was missing, and what had been a great era in one of my favourite shows was over.
So, season thirteen or fourteen? While every season of Doctor Who has stories which aren’t up to the others, I’ve gone for the former. One reason is that includes my own personal favourite Doctor Who story of all time. Also, it showcased possibly the definitive Who companion in Sarah Jane Smith, played by Elisabeth Sladen.
Sarah had first appeared in Jon Pertwee’s final season. Up to then, Doctor Who companions were often young women, with whom the Doctor would have a fatherly relationship. Nowadays, their roles seem of their time, to put it kindly, as they seem to be there mainly as feeds for Doctorly exposition and to scream and be rescued. With a new decade, feminism was making itself felt in popular culture. The first Pertwee companion, Dr Liz Shaw (Caroline John), a Cambridge scientist working for UNIT, was a step in a different direction, though not an entirely successful one. Sarah Jane made her mark from the outset. A journalist, so less reliant on the Doctor, or for that matter the UNIT soldiers led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), she worked well with Pertwee’s Doctor but thrived with Tom Baker’s. Most Doctors spent three years in the role, then moving on to avoid typecasting, and the same applied to the companions. Manning had played Jo for three years, and Sladen did the same, staying on for the first two stories of season fourteen, before leaving. Sarah Jane has had by far the longest afterlife of any Doctor Who companion, and it’s fair to say that Sladen never really escaped the role in her later career.
Although Holmes is well in evidence throughout the season, you have to factor in the work of the writers: Robert Banks Stewart twice, Louis Marks, Terry Nation and the pseudonymous Stephen Harris and Robin Bland (Holmes working from original outlines or scripts by Lewis Griefer and Terrance Dicks, respectively). Also, there is the work of the show’s directors, in this season all regulars who were working at their peak: Douglas Camfield twice over, David Maloney, Paddy Russell (the first woman to direct Doctor Who, and one of only two before the 1980s), Barry Letts and Christopher Barry. All of these had worked on Doctor Who before, but they give some of their best work here. Add to this the expertise of the guest actors, the designers and special effects team, and you have one of the high points of 1970 genre television.
Given the serialised nature of classic era Doctor Who, we're doing things slightly differently this time round as we pick the five best serials - rather than episodes - from the season...
Terror of the Zygons
This was really a season twelve story, as it was made with the rest of those stories, but held back in the schedules to start the new season. Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) had been introduced as a second companion to handle action scenes in case an older Doctor had been cast. But with the forty-year-old, physically imposing (6’3”) Tom Baker in the role, Harry was surplus to requirements, though no reflection on Marter’s playing of the part. Also to be written out were the regular characters from UNIT, the Brigadier and Sergeant, now Warrant Officer, Benton (John Levene).
The Doctor goes up to Scotland, sent by UNIT, following reports of the destruction of oil rigs, apparently by some large creature. The story ties in with the legend of the Loch Ness Monster, and North Sea Oil was certainly topical at the time. However, the damage is the work of the Zygons, shape-changing aliens who had crashlanded in the sea while fleeing their destroyed own planet. Despite a Scottish writer, Robert Banks Stewart, the Scottishness is a little overdone, much as the Welshery was in The Green Death, even if the budget didn’t allow location filming north of West Sussex. There’s an effective score by a composer new to Doctor Who, Geoffrey Burgon. The Colour Separation Overlay (CSO) does rather let down the realisation of the Zygons’ pet monster the Skarasen. Zygons is a good second-rank story, but greater ones were to come.
IMDB Highest rated episode: Terror of the Zygons Part 2
Planet of Evil
Hinchcliffe and Holmes often drew on classic genre themes for their Dctor Who stories, and Planet of Evil is no exception, riffing off Jekyll and Hyde and Forbidden Planet. The Doctor and Sarah travel thirty thousand years into the future to the planet of Zeta Minor, where a scientific team are prospecting for alternative energy sources. However, a creature made from anti-matter has other ideas, and takes over lead scientist Sorensen (Frederick Jaeger).
Planet of Evil is entirely studio-bound, with a stunning jungle set from designer Roger Murray-Leach. The anti-matter monster is at first invisible then animated, but effectively so. In the supporting cast was Michael Wisher, who had scarred many a Seventies child a year earlier as the first and definitive Davros, in his final appearance in the show. Planet of Evil is a very solid story, with a villain more sinned against than sinning. But better ones were to follow.
IMDB Highest rated episode: Planet of Evil Part 3
Pyramids of Mars
Returning back to Earth, the TARDIS overshoots the show’s present (the viewers’ near future) and lands on the site of UNIT HQ (actually Stargroves, Mick Jagger’s then house) in 1911. The owners of the house are the Scarman brothers. The older, Marcus (Bernard Archard) has been to Egypt and opened a newly-discovered tomb. There, he was taken over by the malevolent spirit of Egyptian god Sutekh. Sutekh was banished to Mars by his race and has been there in paralysis ever since. He is now using Scarman and some Egyptian mummy robots to secure his release. There will be devastating consequences if he succeeds.
Pyramids of Mars draws on the old horror trope of the mummy (Egyptgology was big at the time too). With a smaller cast than usual, the actors really make their roles count. Archard does well with the rather thankless role of Marcus, for most of the serial a reanimated corpse controlled by Sutekh’s will. As the younger Scarman, Lawrence, a keen amateur scientist, Michael Sheard shows why he was often called back for guest roles in the show. His puppyish enthusiasm is infectious, but sadly he underestimates what his brother has become, with tragic results. And then there’s Gabriel Woolf as Sutekh. Not appearing until some way into the second episode and not credited until the third, Woolf haunted my childhood. There’s a case to be made that many of the greatest individual Doctor Who villains were really voice parts, the characters often masked, under heavy makeup or mostly or entirely immobile: not just Sutekh but also Davros and later Magnus Greel aka Weng-Chiang. Woolf is a fine voice actor, and it’s no surprise that he’s spent much of his career as a reader of audiobooks. It’s a measure of his versatility that he also provides the voice of Horus in the final episode. My favourite ever Doctor Who story.
IMDB Highest rated episode: The Pyramids of Mars Part 4
We'll skip over the next story The Android Invasion, which marks the final appearance of Benton and Harry Sullivan. It's reputation has tended to suffer in comparison to the stories just before it and the two that followed it. The aliens’ plot is too convoluted to be credible. However, it still has its moments, with some nice work from the regular cast as both their usual characters and their android doubles, and a classic cliffhanger to episode two.
The Brain of Morbius
Lightning flashes and thunder rumbles. It’s a dark and stormy night all right, and we’re in full-on Gothic mode, with more than a few echoes of Frankenstein. The Doctor and Sarah are the guests of Solon (Philip Madoc), a brilliant surgeon now in hiding. However, Solon is an acolyte of renegade Time Lord Morbius, who was executed for his crimes. Solon is building a body to house Morbius’s preserved brain to bring him to life. All he needs now is a head. The Doctor’s…
Written by Terrance Dicks, rewritten by Robert Holmes (Dicks took his name off the script, hence the pseudonym Robin Bland), It’s dark, dark stuff, pushing at the limits of what was often thought of as children’s (actually family) television. There are a shooting, a stabbing, an offscreen decapitation and the memorable UGH scene of Morbius’s brain knocked out of its jar and sliding to the floor. Mary Whitehouse didn’t like it at all. However, it’s as much Sarah’s story as the Doctor, particularly her scenes with the planet’s Sisterhood of Karn, and some fine work from Sladen as Sarah is temporarily blinded. A key piece of Doctor Who lore had its origins in this story too, of which more below.
IMDB Highest rated episode: The Brain of Morbius Part 4
The Seeds of Doom
After five four-part stories, the season ended with a six-parter. Many longer stories tend to fall into smaller divisions, and that’s the case here, with two episodes in the Antarctic (with shades of The Thing, six years before Carpenter’s film was made) followed by four in England. Two alien pods are found in the Antarctic ice. One of them opens and a tendril infects a scientist who mutates into an alien plant creature, the Krynoid. With that threat dispatched, the Doctor and Sarah and the other pod return to the home of millionaire Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley). Like the previous season’s The Ark in Space, we’re in full-on body-horror mode, and it grips utterly.
Harrison Chase is one of the strongest human villains of this era of the show, played by Tony Beckley with a silky menace that doesn’t hide the sadism behind it, and his is one of the several nasty ends in this story. If the Doctor doesn’t drive the story as much as he does in other serials, Sarah shines, and she gets a memorable cliffhanger to herself (see below).
IMDB Highest rated episode: The Seeds of Doom Part 6
Season Thirteen’s Greatest Moments
Sarah and our first sight of the real aliens (Terror of the Zygons)
Anything on the surface of Zeta Minor and Roger Murray-Leach’s jungle set. (Planet of Evil)
As witnessed by the Doctor and Sarah, Namin greets his lord and master Sutekh but finds himself disposable. (Pyramids of Mars)
“I bring Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity.”
The Doctor takes Sarah back to her time, and we witness the devastation Sutekh would wreak if he were released. (Pyramids of Mars)
Where we find out that Sarah is not actually all that she seems. (The Android Invasion)
The duel between Morbius and the Doctor, where each is trying to regress the other back through their previous incarnations. The limit was then twelve, which Holmes returned to in his script for The Deadly Assassin. Clearly with both The Master and the Doctor having regenerated more than twelve times, the show has got round this in recent years. The pre-Hartnell incarnations of the Doctor – or is it Morbius? - were actually members of the show’s production team. (The Brain of Morbius)
Sarah in peril of becoming the second human to mutate into a Krynoid, as a seed pod starts to open. Will she survive? Tune in next week to find out! (The Seeds of Doom)
Season Thirteen of Doctor Who displayed the show in a purple patch, both for itself and for genre television at the time. It didn’t last long, and the show was not the same when it was over – for me at least, who turned eleven during the the run of Planet of Evil. The Hinchcliffe/Holmes era still stands up very well more than forty years later, and this season was at the heart of it.