Seasons 24 to 26 of Doctor Who are by no means flawless, the Sylvester McCoy era began with one Bonnie Langford-shaped hoof in the ghastly light entertainment quagmire that Colin Baker presided over – the truly lamentable ‘Time And The Rani’ which introduced the Seventh Doctor, being followed by the only marginally more tolerable ‘Paradise Towers’, in which a handful of brilliant performances (including the brilliant Richard Briers) were the only standout factor in a CBBC-grade pantomime.
Inspired by Alan Moore’s run on DC Comics’ Swamp Thing and armed with new companion Ace, a trouble Dorothy Gale with a dark past who came closer to the Doctor and understanding him than any of his pre-2005 waifs and strays ever had before, script editor Andrew Cartmel began to construct darker, more intense stories that suited the darker, more intense delivery of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, the cosmic chessmaster who moved his enemies and allies across the board with an enthusiasm that bordered on callous.
Occasionally the spectre of Saturday tea-times would raise its head – comedians Hale and Pace in ‘Survival’ for instance – and the ambition far exceeded the means of BBC drama in the late Eighties, but with Sylvester McCoy’s profile justifiably raised by The Hobbit trailer, and Steven Moffat’s ultimate question – Doctor… who? – being uttered once more, it’s worth revisiting these gems from one of the most underrate periods in the show’s long history.
Like a man who knows he’s dying and insists on putting all of his affairs in order, ‘Remembrance Of The Daleks’ not only finished off the Daleks for good (for a bit, at least), but returned to the scene of the Doctor’s very first adventure, Totter’s Lane and Coal Hill School in Sixties London, to do so. Picking up on the Dalek Civil War story arc that begun in 1985 ‘Revelation Of The Daleks’, and armed with some suitably fun plot twists, Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, and that shocking cliff-hanger that ended a thousand lazy jokes when the Dalek closing in on the Doctor hovers up some stairs after him.
The first story written by Ben Aaronovitch, who would later go onto trouble the pages of SciFiNow with his splendid recent books Moon Over Soho and Rivers Of London, the deleted scenes and Aaronovitch’s novelisation starts to the sow the seeds for a big reveal that would alas, never come, as well as other plot threads that it would be left to the Virgin New Adventures to mine. One survivor of this branch of canon though is the Dalek name for the Doctor, revealed to be Ka Faraq Gatri – “Destroyer of Worlds” – an accusation that the returned Davros spits into the Tenth Doctor’s face in 2008’s ‘Journey’s End’.
It’s interesting to note that like the later ‘Silver Nemesis’, the human antagonists are Far Right nationalists – coupled with Ace’s later reveal that her best friend was attacked by neo-nazis, makes it something of a secondary theme for the era.
The Doctor’s best line: “Your species has the most amazing capacity for self-deception, matched only by its ingenuity when trying to destroy itself.”
Often dismissed as one of the sillier episodes, a relic of the previous incarnation of the show thanks to its surface whimsy and obvious studio-bound limitations – a city in a studio will only ever look like a city in a studio. An incredible, Thatcher-inspired performance from Sheila Hancock as Helen A, the ruler of the cheerily sinister colony of Terra Alpha where everyone is happy and sadness is a crime, sets the tone perfectly though – it’s darkly absurd and joyously unpleasant, with a Bertie Basset-like Kandyman (who wasn’t the subject of a lawsuit, despite legends to the contrary) who serves as the regime’s hangman and Python-like stab at the banality of evil that recalls Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and, of course, George Orwell’s 1984.
Increasingly relevant as Presidents-for-Life all over the world continue to be challenged, it also showed the real power of the Doctor to influence change as he talks one of the regime’s snipers out of firing on the crowd through sheer willpower and intensity.
“It makes sense, doesn’t it?” he snarls. “A life killing life.”
The Doctor’s best line: “I can hear the sound of empires toppling.”
Ropy animatronic cats and faded comedy duo Hale & Pace, if it was just down to that then ‘Survival’ would be the perfect justification for the series’ cancellation, but instead it’s a perfect epitaph for the series’ new, growing potential as the Doctor is lured into a confrontation with an increasingly desperate Master (Anthony Ainley) on a world that makes all choose between predator and prey, forcing both the Doctor and Ace to struggle with their darker urges, and ultimately overcome them.
The Cheetah People themselves aren’t exactly spectacular – especially lounging around the in the sun like extras from Cats – but that first sight of one on horseback, hunting a hapless Ace through scrubland, is powerful indeed and reminiscent of that iconic hunt scene through the long grass in The Planet Of The Apes. Not the last episode filmed, but the last broadcast, the title may be bitterly ironic, but the sign off as the Doctor and Ace walk off into the metaphorical sunset is just beautiful…
The Doctor’s best line: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace. We’ve got work to do.”
Far darker, far scarier and far more sophisticated than Doctor Who had any right to be, a mere two years after Ken Dodd had guest starred, ‘The Curse Of Fenric’ dealt with faith and sexuality, with a luscious location shoot to depict this bleak and beleaguered wartime community sitting on the graves of an ancient evil.
It also has aquatic vampires from the future, way before 2010’s ‘The Vampires Of Venice’ showed us aquatic vampires from space.
With his darker outfit foreshadowing his increasingly darker and more secretive nature, the Doctor is at his manipulative peak – keeping Ace in the dark, breaking her faith in him to weaken their enemy (a plot device repeated in 2011’s ‘The God Complex’ between the 11th Doctor and Amy Pond). It’s very much a tonal shift from a lot of what had come before, and indeed was to come, but it’s a superb piece of viewing that rises above its pacing issues to deliver some incredible set-pieces – the Russian soldiers landing on the beach, The Doctor keeping the Haemovores at bay by reciting the names of his companions, Ace diving into the water symbolically, and one of the greatest cliffhangers ever as the wheelchair bound Doctor Judson, suddenly rises from his chair possessed to exclaim: “We play the contest again, Time Lord!”
The Doctor’s best line: “We hoped to return to the North Way, but the dark curse follows our dragon ship… The Wolves of Fenric shall return for their treasure, and then shall the dark evil rule eternally.”
Beginning life as a story called ‘Lungbarrow’, which was later reworked as a Virgin New Adventure, the first incarnation of ‘Ghost Light’ would have explored the Doctor’s family’s estate, the House of Lungbarrow on Gallifrey and the mystery surrounding it.
Concerned this would give away too much of the Doctor’s mysterious past too early, the plot was retained but the setting suitably changed to deal with a house that a century later, Ace would burn down aged 13, sensing an evil presence that she and the Doctor now investigate. Shades of Quatermass And The Pit, and smatterings of 19th Century and early 20th Century literature abound, ‘Ghost Light’ is a mature character piece for Ace, a well directed, superbly designed mystery, and the first story written by Marc Platt whose future ‘Spare Parts’ Big Finish audiobook would inspire 2006’s return of another classic monster in ‘Rise Of The Cybermen’ and ‘The Age Of Steel’.
The last episode of ‘Old Who’ ever filmed, ‘Ghost Light’ concludes what the fans refer to as the ‘Ace Trilogy’ which concludes with ‘Survival’, and was the first time that a companion had been allowed such an incredible degree of character progression as the Doctor helped his troubled fellow traveller lay her literal and metaphorical ghosts to rest.
The Doctor’s best line: “We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.”