Doctor Who: revisiting Sylvester McCoy’s first season 30 years on

Thirty years after it aired, Jamie looks back at Doctor Who season twenty-four to see if it merits reappraisal...

As January 1988 drew to a close, the dust was just settling on Sylvester McCoy’s maiden season as The Doctor. Doctor Who really needed an unambiguous win – ratings, buzz, critical acclaim – following the uncertainty that had swirled around the show during Colin Baker’s era (and threatened to consume it still); unfortunately, rather than being the shot in the arm the show so desperately needed, season 24 hadn’t had the hoped for impact.

You needn’t venture far to find proof of the intensely negative feelings McCoy’s first run continues to inspire. A casual browse through the archives of any Doctor Who forum will almost immediately throw up threads – whether you agree with them or not – denouncing it as the worst season of Classic Who ever made. But now that we find ourselves sort-of celebrating season 24’s sort-of-anniversary, I wonder if we owe it to that little umbrella-waving space-hobo to reappraise his first adventures with a softer, kinder eye; maybe even find a way to admire them? 

When you consider the scale of the disruption behind-the-scenes immediately prior to season 24 going into production – a recently sacked star, a hastily cast Doctor, the departure of veteran writing staff, budget cuts, rushed scripts, a mixture of apathy and antipathy from BBC upper management; and John Nathan-Turner’s reluctant,  helmsmanship – the most surprising thing isn’t that the end result failed to inspire acclaim, but that the season was actually made in the first place.

Mitigating factors aside, it’s difficult to disagree with the position that season 24 is threaded with flaws and narrative weaknesses. The fans and critics who doubted that producer and show-runner JNT had the capacity or the wherewithal to manoeuvre the show out of the garishly-colourful, creative cul-de-sac he’d driven it down since taking the reins in the early 1980s must have felt suitably vindicated by the season’s Armageddon of primary colours, dung-scented dialogue and ear-shredding screams.

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Perhaps JNT even agreed with them, given that by the end of the second Baker era he’d come to regard the show as an albatross around his neck, and wanted nothing more than to be rid of it. The BBC had promised to release him from the burden of his responsibilities at the end of season 23, but, to paraphrase The Corleone family’s most famous son: just when he thought he was out… they pulled him back in. If the audience felt that their beloved show was being held hostage by JNT, then JNT, in turn, must have felt like he was being held hostage by their beloved show.

Over its lifespan up until that point Doctor Who had been looked upon as many different things – an educational resource, a genre-busting adventure serial, a Bond-esque romp, a laughable repository of rubber monsters and Bacofoil baddies, a violent gothic horror intent on warping fragile minds – and while the show had long served as a bridge between the worlds of the adult and the child, never before in its history had it felt so clearly and exclusively pitched at very young children.

When we first meet the new Doctor at the beginning of Time And The Rani he’s bedecked in the over-sized, technicolour scream-coat of his predecessor. The initially-amnesiac number seven wastes no time at all showing off his new set of skills: prat-falling, gurning, stumbling, tumbling, playing the spoons, and dishing out malapropisms that fall flat. While it was clearly the production team’s intention to create as great a tonal shift between the eras of the sixth and seventh Doctors as possible (mostly to appease those viewers and commentators who felt that the show had become too dark and violent) it surely can’t have been their intention to unveil a Doctor who was – initially at least – closer in spirit to Bodger and Badger than to any of his previous incarnations.

The writers responsible for Time And The Rani, Pip and Jane Baker, tried hard to infuse their story with equal parts comedy and horror, but something went wrong with the recipe: the bits that were supposed to be comedic were horrifying, and the bits that were supposed to be horrifying were bloody hilarious.

Poor Sylvester and Kate O’Mara (the titular Rani) deserved better than this for their first and last appearances respectively. The Seventh wouldn’t begin to blossom into the crafty, cunning, manipulative little trickster beloved of his fans until at least his second season, which is a shame, because McCoy is always at his very best when called upon to be contemplative or whimsical; like when the seventh debated time, slavery and genocide with a cafe owner in Remembrance Of The Daleks, or grooved to some jazz in Silver Nemesis. Deprived of the nuances of the Doctor he was destined to become, McCoy is instead forced to spend most of Time And The Rani – and much of season 24 – gooning around like a poor man’s Charlie Chaplin.

And the Rani, while she was never exactly a nuanced baddie in her first outing alongside Anthony Ainley and Colin Baker, is here transformed into a cackling panto villain, complete with a fiendishly ridiculous plan that would make even Dick Dastardly cover his face in shame and embarrassment. Still, O’Mara is a consummate actress throughout, and manages to make the largely disastrous dialogue work in spite of itself, fully embracing the arch-camp and ‘he’s-behind-you-ness’ of it all in a way that makes you look forward to each of her appearances.

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To Time And The Rani‘s further credit, it’s beautifully shot and directed. The special effects are also surprisingly good, most notably the flying bubble-traps that are dotted around the mysterious alien quarry… I mean, planet. And the Tetraps – giant, hairy bat creatures who suffer from poor peripheral vision despite having eyes all the way round their heads – might have looked a bit naff and Singing-Telegram-ish to adult eyes, but, believe me, they were joyfully terrifying creatures for viewers like me, aged six at the time of original transmission, to behold.

There is, however, something in Time And The Rani that was didn’t work at all, no matter what age you were in 1987: Bonnie Langford’s Mel. Mel was the companion carried over from Colin Baker’s reign. No slight to Langford, who is most probably, almost definitely an all-round lovely human being, just that the character of Mel is surely a significant factor in many fans’ negative appraisal of season 24. Legend has it that JNT hired Bonnie based almost exclusively upon the ear-bursting magnificence of her scream: it shows. When Mel isn’t screaming, she’s bouncing around like an over-enthusiastic Zumba teacher, or enunciating every word in the manner of some Red-Bull-fuelled children’s TV presenter. At best, Mel’s theatrically condescending manner makes the doctor seem like a child by comparison; at worst it makes her appear to be his carer.

Ultimately, then, Time And The Rani is memorable for all the wrong reasons. Some see it as both the worst regeneration story of all time, and the worst story of all time. Certainly, it’s hard for many to look back upon it with anything more favourable than a sort of unsettling confusion, like waking up one morning to find that Mr Tumble is prime minister.

On the other hand, there is something undeniably appealing, even mesmeric, about the absolute insanity of the story’s plot (the Rani is kidnapping famous geniuses from throughout history to help stuff a giant disembodied brain with the power to retcon the evolution of the universe) that promises pure, unfiltered joy to those souls lucky enough to be able to unplug their rational brain for a few hours.

Mercifully, Mel is more bearable, and the Doctor a little less infantile, in season 24’s second story, Paradise Towers. There’s a lot to be hopeful for (at least initially), and some interesting ideas afoot. The titular tower is home to Nazi-like wardens, killer robots, elderly cannibals, warring girl-gangs and an ancient, evil presence. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have the budget to back up its dystopia; for instance, the two warring gangs seen prowling the grimy dystopia of the high-rise – the Blue Kangs and the Red Kangs – are more suggestive of Sesame Street than Mad Max. Some of the writing – especially the dialogue – is often hoary. The story also has the usually bankable Richard Briers bringing to life the character of a possessed ‘Nazi’ warden by channelling a heavily constipated Blakey from On The Buses. It doesn’t help matters that the musical score evokes an angry man repeatedly striking his head off of a synthesiser.

Continuing season 24’s trend of raising hopes only to dash them, Delta And The Bannermen begins encouragingly. There’s an engaging and exciting shoot-out on the surface of an alien quarry… I mean, planet, between forces loyal to a beautiful space princess and the evil Bannermen, the story’s titular rogues. The princess escapes aboard a space coach filled with aliens disguised as humans, all of whom – along with the Doctor and Mel – are heading to a Butlin’s-style holiday camp in Wales in the 1950s, presumably because the birth of Christ was booked out.

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If Shaun Of The Dead is the first zom-rom-com, then the genre-busting Delta And The Bannermen should be considered the world’s first Sci-Fi-De-Hi. There’s an intriguing concept here, but one that doesn’t really go anywhere thanks to the combination of low budget, oddly-pitched performances, bumpy writing and far from the show’s best incidental music. In many ways Time And The Rani wipes the floor with Delta And The Bannermen, if only by virtue of the former story’s tongue-in-cheek, balls-out-craziness.

So far, the evidence isn’t stacking up in season 24’s favour. That only leaves Dragonfire to offer something – anything – in the way of hope and redemption. Incredibly – it sort of does.

Dragonfire is a fun romp. The Doctor and Mel arrive on Iceworld, where they meet up with their old ‘friend’ Glitz, and new friend Ace, a young refugee from Earth who’s working as a waitress to raise money with which to fund her hobby of stockpiling nitro-glycerine. They all join forces to go on a treasure hunt through the frozen labyrinth beneath Iceworld’s main settlement in a tale that offers a sci-fi twist on a medley of pop culture greats, The Wizard Of Oz among them. The story has some nice nuggets of dialogue, an impressive (for the era at least) set, and a memorable villain in the sub-zero psychopath Kane.

It also features the first appearance of Ace who, while she’s at her most children’s TV-ish here, would go on to become one of Doctor Who‘s most enduring, seminal and memorable companions.

Okay, the plot is rather daft and gossamer-thin: the mechanical creature in the sub-levels – clearly inspired by Ridley Scott’s famous monster flick – is more Aliens-on-Ice than HR Giger; Ace says ‘ace’, ‘mega’ and ‘brill’ perhaps a little too often for anyone’s liking, and due to some odd story-telling and editing the Doctor appears to wilfully and needlessly place himself in danger for the purposes of a laughably literal cliff-hanger… but who cares? It’s thoroughly enjoyable. 

This is where Mel departs the show, too. While Mel’s farewell is welcome, it’s handled in an empty, perfunctory way without any foreshadowing whatsoever. The intermittently cheery-and-screamy Mel simply waits until the end of the adventure and then tells the Doctor that it is time for her to go, in a tone that suggests her decision was inevitable and should make perfect sense both to him and to us. It doesn’t. It makes even less sense that she would choose to spend the rest of her life not back on Earth, but drifting through deep space with Glitz, a man who has a proven track-record of sudden, cold-hearted treachery. The Doctor tries his best to give a wistful speech acknowledging the vagaries and contradictions of life and time, but since her character is arguably the most poorly defined of all the companions, that speech, and her subsequent departure, carries zero emotional weight. Poor Bonnie. Mel was so poorly established and under-developed that someone who’d been on screen for five minutes saying ‘mega’ and ‘ace’ was a more well-rounded character.

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So that was season 24. While it’s tempting to rule against it – and there’s certainly more than enough corroborating evidence to support that decision – I’ve decided to take up a sharpened umbrella in its defence, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, 24 is a necessary evil on the road to the two series that would follow. Secondly, there are more than enough undistilled good ideas across the four stories to justify watching season 24 over, say, Hollyoaks or Mrs Browns’ Boys. And lastly – and most importantly – kids.

If it’s unrealistic to expect a 30-year-old or a 60-year-old to enjoy this particular season-shaped batch of Doctor Who – and perhaps it is when you consider the question-mark pull-overs, multi-coloured capering and pantomime villains – then let their nieces or nephews, kids or grandkids watch it instead. Kids then, and kids today, love Sylvester McCoy, and the colourful, campy vibe of season 24. Although I certainly remember watching Peter Davison and Colin Baker in action, Sylvester McCoy was my Doctor, and I adored him. And my young son loves him today, choosing his episodes a disproportionate number of times over those of his Time Lord rivals.

Maybe it’s okay that season 24 is one for the nippers; a season that we adults struggle to fathom or love. After all, some might argue that contemporary Doctor Who in the Moffat era has been less than accessible to young kids, with too many twists and turns, and too much angst and loftiness, for them to properly process it all.

So let’s let the kids – of all ages – have season 24, and try to stop being so unkind about it. Just turn the volume down a bit for the screaming…