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Oddballs, Whizz Kids and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988/9)

greatest show

Back when I was a teenage whizz kid, I watched The Greatest Show in the Galaxy on transmission. Avidly. This makes me feel dodderingly old, but thinking back on it reminds me that it was a rare period of optimism for fandom.

Suddenly, it felt like the show was riding a new wave of creative quality. There was a Doctor and a companion viewers were connecting with. And the show itself was experimenting with a new type of story that someone had christened “oddballs”. During Andrew Cartmel’s reign as Doctor Who script editor, stories oscillated between traditional adventure stories where deeper themes were hinted at (so Remembrance is about things blowing up and racism, Battlefield is about more things blowing up and fear of nuclear war) and these so called oddballs.

I’m working from memory here, but I think “oddball” was the term John Nathan-Turner used in pre-publicity to describe a story which more bizarre elements than usual. I’m pretty sure he first applied that description to Delta and the Bannermen, but that feels more traditional to me than Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol and Greatest Show, oddballs one and all. By Season 26, the oddballs had become less outre, with Ghost Light and Survival blending their bizarreness with more traditional Who storytelling. To become “tradballs”. (Do you like that? I just made it up.)

Being like traditional Doctor Who, or more specifically being like Holmes & Hinchcliffe’s version of Doctor Who, mattered to fans in the 80s. Despite the show’s creative renaissance, oddballs were always greeted warily. I seem to recall someone sniffily calling Greatest Show “the oddball that worked”. And that’s probably because it’s creepy and well acted and it’s got good incidental music, so altogether quite Hichcliffey. Plus no one does anything too silly like dressing up like a big liquorice allsort or smashing jars of honey all over the aliens or doing galactically OTT zombie acting.

But although fans at the time were a bit iffy about oddballs, they brought a new mode to Doctor Who: a sort of highly stylistic aesthetic. Suddenly everyone and everything seemed to be unreal, but not in a Time and the Rani kind of unreality, where people were called Beaus and Ikona and big bat creatures loped alongside Kate O’Mara while she impersonated Bonnie Langford. In this new aesthetic, people had occupations rather than names (the Chief Caretaker, the Tollmaster, the Ringmaster, Control) or they had names which pointed towards their character traits or social heirarchy (Pex, Helen A, Deadbeat, Squeak). Threats became more oblique and more parochial: sweets, pool cleaners and bus conductors will kill you. And the oddballs were so clearly unconcerned with realism that it was obvious they must be allegorical.

To put it another way, Time and the Rani is bizarre but essentially wants the viewer to take the story it’s telling literally. Paradise Towers is bizarre in a way where a reading along the lines of, “this is clearly a message about urban discord and isn’t meant to be read literally” is absolutely valid. And this riled a certain set of fans who just wanted a sequel to Pyramids of Mars.

By the time we get to Greatest Show, the production team was approaching the oddball with confidence. They were working out that a certain set of stories could be told allegorically and still deliver the scares for those wondering what had happened to the magic of Doctor Who. For instance, writer Steven Wyatt saw this story of a hippy circus being infiltrated by a sinister force as expressing the death of 1960s idealism…. And also clowns made great Doctor Who monsters, because were creepy and cheap to realise. So win win.

The members of Wyatt’s space circus have long since sold their Bohemian souls. Corruption is a potent theme in Greatest Show. Just as the Gods of Rangnarok have corrupted the members of this circus troupe, so each of its victims – including the Doctor (a smart, vivid performance from Sylvester McCoy) – are drawn to the circus ring in by their own desire for fame. One of the most terrifying aspects of this is that the corruption doesn’t produce a standard Doctor Who villain – just a triad of desperate middle managers. The Ringmaster (Ricco Ross), Morgana (Deborah Manship) and the Chief Clown (Ian Reddington) have to strategise in panic to get people in the ring, until the latter has no other option but to feed his colleagues to the ever hungry beast. There’s no grand plan here, only desperate improvisation against a relentless taskmaster.

While most of the story’s elements pull in the same direction, others are oddballs within this oddball. Mags (Jessica Martin) is a end of episode monster grrrl hidden in plain sight, but her connection to the selling out of hippy ideals is unclear. Still, she’s nothing compared to Captain Cook (TP McKenna), a walking, talking, pith helmeted representation of colonial arrogance. He’s as out of place as Mags, but he’s perhaps the most extreme example of this story’s high symbolism. How can this towering stereotype be read literally? He’s too starkly stylised to be anything but a walking parody.

Talking of walking parodies, there’s also the Whizz Kid (Gian Sammarco), a stereotypical representation of Doctor Who fans, and specifically, the sort who wished the whole place would Hinchcliffe itself up a bit. Where Captain Cook seems to be one random allegorical element too far, the Whizz Kid manages to push Greatest Show into a new shape, where the circus becomes a stand-in for Doctor Who itself. It’s almost a cry for help from the production team: trapped in an aging show, trying to sate an audience demanding endless entertainment, mercilessly judged by ratings and beset by barkers. Among everything else it’s doing, Greatest Show’s also a meta commentary.

This, I think, is the power of the oddball. It allows so many things to happen simultaneously. You can tell a story about the death of idealism, our society’s constant appetite for entertainment and the strained relationship Doctor Who had with its fans, all at once. You can set it in twisted versions of familiar worlds, dress your characters up in wacky costumes and give them oblique names, and all would be forgiven as long as you kept the lighting low and offered the occasional scare. From here, we get Gridlock, The Doctor’s Wife and Smile. They’re great because they’re smart and funny and see the world a little differently. And maybe it’s because all whizz kids eventually grow up to be oddballs, I still find so much to love in them.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy Mini Quiz:

  1. How can the Ringmaster switch off Mags’ screams?
  2. When he does, why can Ace still hear them?
  3. Why does the Doctor expect Segonax to be a green and pleasant land when he saw on the scanner that it looked like a quarry?
  4. Why is that section of dialogue in Part Two between the Ringmaster and the Doctor (and a little bit of Ace) in the ring written in rhyming verse?
  5. How exactly was it the Doctor’s show all along?

LINK TO The Space Museum: annoying teenage boys.

NEXT TIME… Don’t leave me hanging! We meet an underwater menace in Under the Lake/Before the Flood.


High density, high anxiety and Paradise Towers (1987)


Anyone who’s ever lived in a block of apartments will recognise the anxiety about high-density living which Paradise Towers taps into. Life in a flat is compact and convenient, but you share very close quarters with your neighbours. You witness each other’s faintly embarrassing domestic incidents; the hanging out of underwear, the clink of multiple wine bottles in a wheely bin, the muffled arguments audible through walls. There are often undercurrents of tension and resentment which build up over pointless rules and rituals. There’s gossip and goings on. It’s a perfect setting for a Doctor Who story, and one which (for the first time, surprisingly) reflected the living arrangements of many watching at home.

It’s one of Doctor Who‘s many attempts to portray a future dystopia. Those type of stories usually feature an authoritarian regime in place, stifling the basic humanity of the common person. So in Doctor Who terms Nineteen Eightyfour becomes The Sun Makers (kind of). Paradise Towers, however, gives us a world where authority is missing – the folks in charge have gone off to fight a war – and society is left to decay and the Tower’s inhabitants to fend for themselves. Not that I’ve read High-Rise from which this story is famously descended, but I have read Lord of the Flies, so I know the score.

But dystopian fiction is actually not a great match for Doctor Who. The structure of those stories usually involves the eventual corruption of the main character as he (it’s always a he) succumbs to the savagery around him. That can’t happen to the Doctor. Besides that, dystopian stories are just too grim for Doctor Who. The show’s solution is to accentuate the comedy, soften the violence and have the Doctor put the place to rights at story’s end. So stories like The Sun Makers and The Happiness Patrol, and even darker variations like Vengeance on Varos and Frontios create a variety of “safe” dystopias, in which the Doctor can engineer regime change in a few quick episodes.

So it is with Paradise Towers, which despite its serious themes, is a colourful, jokey affair covered by a plasticky, synth pop soundtrack. Its lightness of tone helps take the sting out of the story’s more disturbing implications. By way of example, mumsy residents Tilda (Brenda Bruce) and Tabby (Elizabeth Spriggs) are cartoony cannibals, wanting to eat companion Mel (Bonnie Langford). Their outlandish costumes and exaggerated cutesy way of talking take the edge of the nasty undertone; that the Tower’s most vulnerable inhabitants are starving, and are resorting to killing and eating rats and even people in order to survive. By way of another example, the Kangs are brightly dressed, slang spouting runaway children, with big hair. But the flip side is these are abandoned kids, left to fend for themselves, fighting among themselves and scavenging for food. You don’t have to scratch very far beneath the jolly surface of Paradise Towers to find a very bleak world view.

This seems to me to reflect a modern fear of the effects of poverty on social cohesion. This is a world where young people have no employment, and so form gangs, graffiti walls and perform random acts of vandalism. Old people have no pension, and so are left to go hungry and eke out their days. High-density housing is presented as the arena these polar ends of society co-inhabit and where the impacts of poverty are most clearly shown. Government is absent.

In its place is pointless bureaucracy, another trope of dystopian fiction. This is represented by the Caretakers, sad middle-aged men, slaves to a seemingly never ending cavalcade of rules. They speak in officialese and are janitors at heart, but in the power vacuum of the Towers they’ve been elevated to the kind of mid-weight authority that everyone ignores. Their Chief (Richard Briers) is a mustachioed, permanently outraged figure of fun. He’s crucial to undercutting the nihilism implied by the story’s premise, so is a welcome ingredient of comic villainy. (Although Briers’ outrageous piss take performance as the possessed Chief in Part Four – against the expressed wishes of both director and producer – has been rightly criticised. Had he played it with a Sutekh-like whisper, and a Taren Capel-like calm, this story may now be held in higher fan esteem.)

The Towers are also divided along gender lines. The Caretakers – impotent, drab authority figures – are all men. The Rezzies and the Kangs – colourful, anarchic rule breakers – are all women. We get very few scenes of these groups interacting but a little snippet in Part Three gives an indication of how it works. The Chief has come to inspect the aftermath of Tilda and Tabby’s demise at the hand (well, claw) of something in the disposal chute. There he meets another Rezzie, Maddy (Judy Cornwall) and seeks to buy her silence about the incident:

CHIEF: I would urge you for the moment to keep the matter quiet. We don’t want to alarm people unduly, do we?

MADDY: Well, I’m not really sure I ought to.

CHIEF: Not that I would wish to bribe you to hold your tongue in any way but rules can be made flexible, and it could be arranged for you to move into this flat instead of your own. (His voice becomes a seductive purr) It is substantially larger.

Here in a few sentences, we see the true nature of life in Paradise Towers: making deals and compromising morals, presided over by a corrupt regime. It’s probably not worth contemplating the sex lives of any of the Towers’ inhabitants (male or female) but if we dared, we could come to the conclusion that this is how such arrangements would be made.

Into this male/female divide slips Pex (Howard Cooke), the little boy who stayed behind from the war and grew up into a muscle bound misfit. Much has been made on how Cooke didn’t have the Schwarzenegger-like physique which seems obvious for the character. But making him a slighter, woosier kind of guy actually plays to the story’s theme of the impotence of masculinity. The Chief, for instance, is a fawning, twee Daddy figure his pet monster in the basement. And his Deputy (Clive Merrison), an ineffectual drip, rudderless without his rulebook. These men are hopeless. And even though Pex redeems himself at story’s end with a SACRIFICIAL BLAM! he’s only forced into it because he loses his nerve and stuffs up the Doctor’s (tricky Sylvester McCoy) plan.

In fact, the Doctor is the only competent man in the Towers. He sees and articulates the problem clearly; the various groups within this society won’t face up to its problems. His challenge is to unite the factions and get them to work together to confront their oppressor. In this sense, it’s not so different from the rabble rousing he’s pulled off on Pluto, Peladon and all the rest.

Except here he has also created a community, the element which was missing from Paradise Towers. It’s a neat ending because it’s not just about defeating the villain but also about healing this world’s fundamental wound. This Doctor stands for community, in the face of heartless authority and social division. Because as much as high-density living can be about sniping about clothes lines and complaining about noisy neighbours, it’s also about people living closely, looking out for each other, sharing a laugh and cooperating. Not high anxiety, but high fidelity, to the idea of living together.

LINK TO Terminus. Mark Strickson, who is in Terminus, and Julie Brennan, who is in Paradise Towers, were once married.

NEXT TIME… Now this is really a bit strange. Sit up straight, it’s time to Listen.

Transformation, transition and Survival (1989)


Even with its dying breaths, old school Doctor Who was taking us to strange, exotic worlds. Survival is set somewhere the series had never been, not in 26 years and over 150 stories: planet Surburbia.

It’s a world that has little to recommend it. It’s the boredom capital of the universe, according to Ace (Sophie Aldred). It’s a dump, says gloomy charity collector Ange (Kate Eaton). Even the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, wise and still a little wacky), a man who finds interest in everything, can’t stifle a yawn.

It’s a world inhabited by moaning shopkeepers swapping lame dad jokes, shrill NIMBY women complaining about cats and a boorish military wannabe, teaching boys to brawl. We see inside a  dingy youth club, the dowdy corner store and a grim council estate. This is a place Ace’s friends want to escape from, but their options are unappealing; get a job as a window cleaner, marry a brain-dead plumber, or fall through an interplanetary cat-flap to a disintegrating world inhabited by carnivorous cat-people.

We’re used to the Doctor and his pals inhabiting suburbia these days. It’s a mainstay of New Who. But for nearly all of its run, the classic series was a strangely arch experience; it specialised in the bizarre tales from alien places, delivered in received pronounciation. It took to the end of the series for it to get to the street where you lived and to meet the people you know.


Perivale is a place of stasis and stagnation. The unnamed world of the Cheetahs is the opposite – a place of violent upheaval and transformation, with a pink sky and Spanish guitar music. Stay too long there and it turns you into an animal, hungry and eager to hunt. “This place,” says the Master (Anthony Ainley, in the performance of his Who career), “bewitches you.” It’s a phrase chosen carefully; not only is the planet’s transformative effect more magic than science, but the mention of witches reminds us that cats were traditionally their familiars of choice. And this is a story which celebrates femininity.

We see three characters physically changed by the planet. Two are men – the Master and young roughnut Midge (Will Barton). For both of them, the transformation is a base, animalistic thing. It seems to revolt the Master, that a Time Lord of his standing should succumb to such an infection. Only at the story’s end, when he’s past the point of no return, does he surrender to his new bestial urges. Midge puts up no such fight. In a Lord of the Flies moment, he skewers a dying Cheetah with a tusk, loses any remaining innocence he has, and goes all big hungry cat immediately.

The other victim of the planet is Ace, and for her, the transformation is a far more ambiguous experience. She revels in the strength and stamina it gives her. She too finds a Cheetah in trouble, and unlike Midge, nurses her back to health. This forms the basis for a powerful attraction to the feline, Karra (Lisa Bowerman), and so begins a proto-romance, Beauty and the Beast-style. Writer Rona Munro, has talked about this being the lesbian subtext running through the story, but in reality, there’s not much ‘sub’ about it.

Above the Cheetah people’s planet hangs an ominous moon, a potent symbol of femininity, as indeed are cats. Why shouldn’t this bewitching place be a world where women can control the magic around them and be invigorated by it? While men struggle and fight against the inevitable, Ace embraces her physical change. And learns to control it enough to deliver the Doctor and her friends back home. To the boredom capital of the universe.


The Doctor has undergone a subtler transformation. He has spent the rest of Season 26 being manipulative and bringing all manner of schemes to completion. In Survival he reverts to stumbling into a situation and working out what’s happening as he goes along. In Part One, he even seems to hark back to his clownish Season 24 persona, cackhandedly trying to lure cats and pratfalling off garden walls.

The exception comes in Part Three when, in an absurd stunt that undermines the rest of this stylish and lyrical story, the Doctor and Midge duel using motorcycles. They crash head on and there’s an unfeasibly large explosion. From which the two combatants are flung away long and unlikely distances. Midge is badly injured, as indicated by the smudges of charcoal on his face, and is talked to death by the Master. The Doctor is unscathed, and luckily lands on a strategically placed sofa and some bags of old rubbish. “Oh very good,” he says as he extricates himself. “Very amusing.”

I suppose that indicates that some unseen benefactor placed the soft furnishings in advance, anticipating the Doctor’s fall exactly. Presumably, it’s some future version of the Doctor and so, hooray, the master manipulator is back, this time with with bin bags. It strikes an odd note in this story, which has otherwise been made up of elements which fit thematically and logically together (if we ignore the bit when a horse clips a trip wire which somehow leaves the Doctor hanging from a tree).

But if the Doctor is in the business of leaving cushioned landings for himself, I see no reason why he should stop on the grassy slopes of Horsenden Hill. His fourth incarnation could do with a crash mat at the Pharos Project. His tenth with a foam pit in the Naismith mansion. And so on, throughout eternity.


In the end, the Master embraces his inner beast and returns to the Cheetah planet, his new home, a world of fire and chaos. Ace learns to control her inner beast, but loses her newfound soul mate, when Karra dies. The Doctor reaffirms his abhorrence of violence, refusing to fight, and thus finds his way home to the TARDIS. He finds Ace wearing his hat and clutching his umbrella, on her way to becoming a younger, more vital version of himself. They walk off, arm in arm, having changed Suburbia from being boredom central, to being the battleground between humans and aliens, and between reason and animal instinct.

That the old series ends here is almost incidental. No one intended it to end here. No one designed this to be the last Doctor Who story. Which is both apparent and ironic, because Doctor Who was rarely, if ever, so boldly and breathtakingly new as in Survival.

LINK TO Horror of Fang Rock: both stories feature women as key parts of the creative team (director Paddy Russell and writer Rona Munro). Pretty rare for Doctor Who.

NEXT TIME… It’s what I’ve always feared. We’re on the horns of The Twin Dilemma.

Renovation, nostalgia and Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)


New Doctor

Between seasons 24 and 25, the Doctor regenerated but didn’t change his face. Between them, script editor Andrew Cartmel and lead actor Sylvester McCoy sought to change the seventh Doctor from the fun and frothy version we met in his opening year, to the more serious, thoughtful and mysterious version that makes his debut in Remembrance of the Daleks. Prior to this, Doctors had gradually evolved, not made sudden character u-turns. Never before had there been such a tacit admission that a Doctor’s performance was, for whatever reason, not what the show needed and that a major re-think was required.

McCoy is no passive participant here; he embraces this new approach. In his first year, he looked for and accentuated any opportunity for comedy. Here, he looks for and relishes the quiet, pensive moments, the lines where he harshly points out unpalatable truths and where he can hint at his character’s hidden motives. It’s a distinctly different performance to the one he gave previously. A renewal, we might say.

For Cartmel’s part, he pulls off a corresponding renovation of the Doctor’s character in the scripted word. Remembrance is the first story where the Doctor is positioned as a planner and a manipulator of people and events, in order to gain the outcome he wants. For the 24 years prior to this, the Doctor had simply bumbled into events and made things up as he went along. Now, the Doctor has an agenda. And goddess help you if you happen to be on the wrong side of it.

New Companion

Appropriately enough, this new Doctor comes with a new companion. The previous one, frankly, wouldn’t fit with this secretive schemer. Bright and sensible Mel, as played by Bonnie Langford, was too much of an organiser. She’d want to infiltrate the Doctor’s plans, make them more efficient, plot them on a spreadsheet. It would never have worked.

Instead, we have teenage tearaway Ace (Sophie Aldred). Mel was all reason, but Ace is all instinct. She works with this Doctor because she’s someone who simply reacts to whatever he’s planned. They are opposites in this regard: grand planner alongside gut instinct. She also comes looking for trouble. Like previous companions Jamie and Leela, she carries weapons. But unlike them, she’s packing home made bombs and a baseball bat. Which makes sense, because a grand planner wouldn’t walk into a situation unarmed.

Watching Ace join the series when Dragonfire was broadcast, I remember wondering how this new companion was going to work out. She was so different to companions past, I couldn’t quite envisage how her relationship with the Doctor would play out. When Remembrance screened, it was instantly clear. She was as truculent and bolshie and emotionally fragile as you’d expect a teenager to be. Although fiercely loyal, she wasn’t going to go quietly along with what the Doctor wanted. The Doctor’s relationship with Ace was vibrant and stimulating in exactly the way that the Doctor and Mel’s wasn’t.

Looking back on Ace now though, there is something inherently false about her. She’s altogether too polished and perfect to be a kid from the wrong side of the tracks. And the Eliza Doolittle aspect of her relationship with the Doctor seems a tad patronising. But on the other hand, here’s a companion allowed to fire an anti-tank rockets, leap through windows and bash up Daleks. A compelling, though unconvincing mix she might be, but she’s an important element in Remembrance‘s campaign to do nothing less but reinvent Doctor Who.

New Daleks

The Daleks are as old as Doctor Who itself and as I’ve mentioned before, it’s hard to find new things for them to do. Writer Ben Aaronovitch’s solution is to set two factions of them at each other, and have them fighting over an ancient Time Lord artefact. We’ve seen Dalek vs Dalek before, in the recently randomed The Evil of the Daleks, but there it was because some had learned to question their orders, since being injected with the Human Factor. Here, they’re not just ideologically different, but biologically different. As Ace puts it, one set of blobs hate the others for being bionic blobs with bits added.

It’s the genetically modified imperial Daleks, who have decided to experiment with their species’ very form. They’ve created a Special Weapons Dalek, basically a cannon on casters. And when the Emperor Dalek turns up not only is it a big TV Comic style bauble, it springs open to reveal Davros (Terry Malloy) who is sporting many coils of wires and is descending into complete mechanisation. When compared to the traditionally shelled Renegade Daleks, we have a clear contest between conservatives and disrupters.

Tinkering with Dalek design is dangerous territory, as Victory of the Daleks proved. No-one had dared do it since Dalek creator Terry Nation breathed life into Davros in Genesis of the Daleks, and before that when Dalek midwife David Whitaker gave us the original Emperor in Evil. Remembrance gives us no less than three new takes on the Daleks, but while staying faithful to the original design.

So with all this new stuff going on, what exactly are we meant to be remembering?

Old Times

There’s no story reason why this story’s called Remembrance of the Daleks. (That’s hardly the worst crime – there’s no strong reason why the last three Dalek stories were called Destiny, Resurrection or Revelation of the Daleks.) Like so much in this story, the title is self-referential. The remembrance in question is not within the fiction of story, but commenting on the story itself.

It’s about remembering television. Not just remembering Doctor Who‘s past, although there’s loads of that on offer, far outweighing that often derided continuity-fest Attack of the Cybermen. It’s not just the many links to An Unearthly Child, and numerous Dalek stories. The presence of a kind of proto-UNIT with a faux Brigadier, his scientific adviser and a sneaky officer called Mike, brings to mind the days when the Doctor would regularly hang out with the military. “Do you remember the Zygon gambit with the Loch Ness Monster? Or the Yetis in the Underground?,” sighs the Doctor at one point. “No,” the casual audience member says, but “yes and yes” say his loyal fans. (The Doctor only ever wants to remember the classics. He never says, “Do you remember when London was invaded by unconvincing dinosaurs? Or when the Master stole Concorde?”)

Alongside these references sit shoutouts to Quatermass and Grange Hill. Ace talks about watching TV in the future and sits down to watch vintage BBC programming and just misses watching a new science fiction serial. The army has a surveillance rig disguised as a TV detector van and when the Doctor confronts Davros at the story’s climax, he does it via an old television. Not to mention that when that Dalek glides totteringly up those stairs at the end of Part One, it’s putting to rest an old joke perpetrated by years of television tradition, from sketch shows and comedians’ bits of yore.

What this story beautifully evokes is our memories of watching classic TV. That’s where the remembrance lies – in the viewer’s own experience. It’s an odd but exhilarating mix of brave innovations and pure nostalgia.

LINK TO In the Forest of the Night: both are harking back to An Unearthly Child.

NEXT TIME: You intellectual microbe! You asinine cretin! It’s something devious and overcomplicated in The Mark of the Rani.

Mystique, momentum and Ghost Light (1989)


I’ve been watching Ghost Light and pondering its meaning  for 26 years now. Watched it on transmission, watched the repeats, read the book, read the script book, listened to the soundtrack, watched the VHS, watched the DVD, watched the DVD special features. Read lots about it too, from others deciphering this atmospheric but Byzantine tale. Rich and moody, like a goblet of heady red wine, it’s a decadent treat of a story. By now, I think I just about understand everything in it. Still, I wouldn’t like to be put to the test.

This beautiful but bizarre tale, layered with symbolism and literary allusion, feels like late night viewing. 10:30pm on a Friday night on BBC27 or something. But of course, it wasn’t like that. It was broadcast on successive Wednesday evenings at 7:30pm, BBC1. Infamously, opposite Coronation Street. Brilliant it may be, but does Ghost Light really sit comfortably in that time slot? How many bewildered viewers switched channels, looking for something less demanding for a work night? And should Doctor Who be too complicated to understand on first viewing?

As much as I admire this story, there’s an argument that it’s absolutely not what the series needed in1989. It comes close to very end of the classic series, a time when the show needed to be winning viewers, not alienating them. Straight forward knockabout adventure, suitable for the whole family was what was called for. Ghost Light offers Victorian gothic with an incomprehensible sci fi slap.

Look, I’m going to be harsh about it. Yes, there’s a mystique in being oblique. Yes, the show should treat its audience with intelligence. Yes, by 1989 viewers could tape and rewatch the show and be rewarded by multiple viewings. But no, it’s not good enough to leave viewers befuddled. That’s poor storytelling.

And sure, Ghost Light lost a lot of material in the editing, but frankly I don’t think reinstating it would have helped. It’s designed to be decoded over time, so it would always have been mystifying on its initial viewing. It has technical problems too: the pictures are so dark and murky not even the transfer to DVD can help illuminate them, and the incidental music often obscures the dialogue. This is a story which expects a lot from its viewers, then makes it difficult for them to hear and see it. There’s even one shot of the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) writhing pointlessly with thin air, which is missing the accompanying visual effect to show he’s struggling against Light’s (John Hallam)  power. Astonishing that after 26 years of making Doctor Who, some fundamental production errors were still being made.

So: fascinating, macabre, lyrical, but on a storytelling level, flawed. But you’re a smart fellow or lass, so you’ve spotted the problem with what I’m saying: if Ghost Light fails as storytelling, why have I stuck with it for 26 years?

Well, precisely because it’s fascinating, macabre and lyrical. To such an extent that I can look past its problems.


Watching Ghost Light immediately after The Mind of Evil is like trading in your Datsun 120y in for a Ferrari. The increase in pace is palpable; more happens in the first 10 minutes of Ghost Light than in the first two episodes of The Mind of Evil.

Late 80s Who is like that though, and it’s not just because viewers’ tastes had changed. For most of its first 23 years, Doctor Who walked you through a story, detailing every event, every conversation between events, every journey from plot point to plot point.

Doctor Who as script edited by Andrew Cartmel tells us the important parts of a story and leaves us to figure out the rest. This, plus a tendency for his episodes to overrun and need to be unsentimentally edited, make for a distinctly choppy house style throughout McCoy’s tenure. Let’s call it the Cartmel Mode.

The Cartmel Mode’s distinguished like this. Scenes abruptly begin and end, as if two or three lines have been cut from either end. Characters shift locations instantly; we don’t get to see their journeys between (for instance Ace (Sophie Aldred) falls asleep in a chair; we don’t see her stumble upstairs to her bedroom, we just see her wake up about 11 hours later). Ghost Light demonstrates this stop-start momentum throughout. Characters behave slightly oddly because earlier parts of the story have been excised; in Part One, for example, Nimrod expresses no surprise in discovering the Doctor and Ace. That’s because in a cut scene, Josiah became aware there were visitors in the house and sent Nimrod to greet them.

But Ghost Light does something even more remarkable. It cuts out a whole day’s events.

Back to sleepy old Ace. When she falls asleep for the daylight hours, it’s like the audience does too. And the Doctor was busy in those hours. He repaired the lift, went down to the cellar and made a deal with Control (Sharon Duce) to awaken Light. But all this is kept from us. I can’t think of another story which deliberately obscures the action in this way, mid story.

The effect is that the Doctor is as much a figure of mystery as the other inhabitants of the house. We don’t get to see everything he does, and so he’s also an untrustworthy character. He measures out information to Ace as he sees fit, he deceitfully hides the house’s location from her. He’s tricksy.

But he’s also a powerful character, and Cartmel has often talked about the need for the Doctor to be an active presence in the story; a person who makes things happen, not has things happen to them. That’s never truer than in Ghost Light. The climax to Part Two’s a good example, where the Doctor gathers all the players in the hall so that he can precipitate a meeting with Light. He even moves the clock forward 15 minutes to make it happen when he wants. Everyone in this story dancing to his tune, working to his timetable. That’s power.


This week, to my delight, I found that my local library held a copy of Ghost Light‘s latest iteration and the one I hadn’t yet experienced: AudioGo’s audiobook of Marc Platt’s novelisation. It’s read by actor Ian Hogg, whose smoky voice adds extra flavour to this familiar tale, even if he sounds mildly surprised by each sentence and his Ace sounds like an escapee from Porridge.

Hearing it helps little details float to the service; for instance, that it’s Control who animates the Husks and can see through their eyes, or that Josiah awakened Redfers (Michael Cochrane) from his collection so he could intercept the Doctor and Ace. 26 years I’ve been decoding Ghost Light. Looks like I’m not done yet.

LINK to The Mind of Evil: both feature characters being mentally controlled by others.

NEXT TIME: So, we meet again, Earthshock.


Kane, Belazs and Dragonfire (1987)

dragonfire 1

Doctor Who is often at its best when brilliant actors get to do their thing together on screen. In Dragonfire, there are two of the best: Edward Peel as Kane and Patricia Quinn as Belazs.

Kane is an icy, vampiric despot. Belazs is an underling, who signed up to Kane’s service as a youngster. Once they were lovers, but now they are simply master and servant.

Peel and Quinn are terrific actors, but even they can’t save a poorly written scene. This clunker is from Part One, and is the first time they meet on screen.

BELAZS: He says he lost the money in a game of cards.

KANE: I know he lost the money in a game of cards. The game was fixed. What about the map?

BELAZS: He’s convinced it’s genuine.

KANE: Excellent. He’ll soon realise if he wants to see his spacecraft again he has no alternative but to go after the treasure. And when he does, I shall be with him every step of the way.

There’s not a line in that scene which isn’t inelegant exposition. It’s a case study in how not to write a scene. Characters telling each other things they already know. Sentences twisted into shape to include plot details. And it gets worse as it goes along:

BELAZS: He appears to have two colleagues.

KANE: Colleagues? I thought he sold his entire crew.

BELAZS: They’re not from his crew, sir. Space travellers. A man and a girl. Do you want them eliminated?

KANE: Not for the moment, I think. There’s no reason for them to suspect that the seal on the treasure map contains a tracking device.

I just had to italicise that last one because it is so awful. It’s so awful it’s almost beautiful. No-one talks like that. Surely not even if they’re ancient space villains turned grocery centre owners.

But then, the very next scene Kane and Belazs have together, is brilliant. Not awful brilliant, just brilliant.

BELAZS: It’s Glitz’s spacecraft.

KANE: What of it?

BELAZS: It’s just that…

KANE: Yes?

BELAZS: Well, if Glitz and the Doctor are as good as dead, I’d like the spacecraft.

KANE: Oh, you’d like the spacecraft, would you? (He creeps towards her impassively) When you first came here you had nothing. You were willing enough to take my payment then. But now you want to leave. Perhaps you have memories of a home you can return to? Perhaps I should have put you into cryosleep along with all the others and erased your memories.

(He grabs her hand, which bears the burnt imprint of a coin.)

Perhaps you need reminding. As long as you bear my mark, I own you.

(Kane flicks a switch on the console.)

MAN [V/O]: Yes, sir?

KANE: (doesn’t take his eyes of Belazs) Glitz’s spacecraft. Have it destroyed.

I just had to italicise that last one because it is so brilliant, and y’know, out of fairness because I paid out the last scene.

The spacecraft means much more to Belazs than just transport. It represents freedom. Kane orders it destroyed for no other reason but to keep Belazs in her place. And he does it to her face because he wants her to know she’s in her place. Stylishly performed and directed, it’s an astonishing turnaround from just two scenes before. I’ve written before about Who‘s tendency to mix brilliance with rubbish, but rarely does it happen so quickly.

Belazs goes behind Kane’s back and rescinds his order to destroy Glitz’s spacecraft, the gothicly named Nosferatu. She runs into the Doctor and Glitz while attempting to abscond and there’s another snippet of handsome dialogue.

BELAZS: Only one of us can leave Iceworld aboard the Nosferatu, and one way or the other, it’s going to be me.

GLITZ: What about the boss, Mister Kane? Does he know of your little enterprise?

BELAZS: Kane doesn’t own me.

DOCTOR: Oh, I think he does. I think he bought you like he buys everything in Iceworld.

BELAZS: What would you know about it?

DOCTOR: I think he bought you a long time ago. He paid seventeen crowns for each of Glitz’s crew. How much did he pay for you? Was it worth it? Were you worth it?

BELAZS: (she brandishes her burnt hand) That’s what I sold myself for, Kane’s mark. I ought to cut my hand off for doing it.

With her path to freedom blocked, Belazs’ thoughts turn to murder. She conspires with fellow grunt Kracauer.

BELAZS: Do you see this?

KRACAUER: Yes, the mark of the sovereign.

BELAZS: You’d have thought it would begin to disappear after twenty years.

KRACAUER: We sold ourselves. We knew what we were doing. We had a choice.

BELAZS: I was sixteen.

KRACAUER: Even at sixteen we had a choice.

BELAZS: He’ll kill us. He’ll find someone younger and he’ll kill us unless we kill him first.

KRACAUER: How do you propose to do that?

BELAZS: With heat. Even here in Iceworld it’s too warm for him. I’ve seen inside the restricted zone. That’s where he keeps his refrigeration unit. He has to return there whenever his body temperature rises too high.

I just had to italicise that last bit because it’s the point where a perfectly lovely scene turns to awkward exposition.

Off screen, Belazs somehow convinces Kracauer that he’s the one who has to turn off Kane’s air conditioning and let him roast. (How exactly did she do that, hmmm?) But he’s too slow and Kane kills him with his trademark icy face palms. But Kane realises that Kracauer doesn’t have the gumption to dream up this scheme. He know that the true architect is:

KANE: (whispers) Belazs!

Her number’s up. The next time we see him, he’s charm itself.

KANE: Ah, my dear Belazs. You know, I’ve been thinking. I’ve been thinking of your request to leave. You’ve been with me a long time now. I’ve grown very fond of you, but I’ve been thinking it over carefully and I’ve decided. You may leave me.

BELAZS: Leave?

KANE: Whenever you wish. Go in fortune and happiness. (Then he turns on her. He grabs her by the face) You traitor! I’ve been planning my revenge for three thousand years. How can you stand in my way now I am so close?

I love that first bit – I’ve grown very fond of you – cloying words to an old flame, to draw her in before he kills her without mercy. But then that unnecessary and melodramatic addition – How can you stand in my way blah blah – when all that’s needed is that brilliant two word accusation: You traitor. It’s so typical of Dragonfire; smart and spot on one minute, overwritten the next.

That’s where the ballad of Kane and Belazs ends. She doesn’t even make it to Part Three. There’s much more to this story, in all its comic, gothic, plastic grandeur. It’s got colour and monsters and smart arse humour and synth crashes and unlikely plot twists and inexplicable stunts all wrapped up in a film theory text book. It’s dizzying.

But amongst it all, Belazs’ story shows us just what a bastard Kane is. It’s importance to the plot is tangential; at best it shows us what might become of young tearaway Ace (Sophie Aldred) if she grasps that blistering coin. And even with its on again off again dialogue, it’s far and away the best thing about Dragonfire.

LINK to Destiny of the Daleks. Both star Tony Osoba! How about that? Wouldn’t it be great if our next story is Kill the Moon?

NEXT TIME… But no, it’s Flatline. Argh! So close!

Reproduction, romance and Delta and the Bannermen (1987)

delta 1

Who’s sorry now?

Mysterious creatures, Bannermen. They’re infamously ruthless warriors who carry banners on their backs wherever they go. Awkward, unwieldy banners, which wobble precariously when racing into battle. Well, I say ‘racing’. Most of the Bannermen are ageing, pudgy extras and a slight trot is about as much as they can muster. I agree with Agent Weismuller (Stubby Kaye): they’re the sorriest bunch of Bannermen I’ve ever seen.

And for terrifying mercenaries they’re not exactly what you’d call bright. They can be confused by tying one of their tracking devices around the neck of a goat. And they insist on standing around while shelves of honey slowly fall all over them. And I don’t want to be prurient, but they ought to spend a bit more time finding some Bannerwomen if they want this race of theirs to survive.

Also, they’re genocidal. Yes, that’s a surprise isn’t it? Given they seem to the untrained eye to be ineffectual buffoons, who’d have thought that true villainy lay hidden under those baggy flight suits? And they’ve been surprisingly successful at it, having hunted down all but one of their targets, the Chimerons.

And while the Bannerfellows have remembered to pack some useful equipment like their banners (natch) and a dual neck yoke thing for entrapping hapless Americans, they seem to have forgotten that their key weakness is a susceptibility to the song of their Chimeron target. So presumably they should have packed some ear muffs. C’mon Bannermen, it’s step one.

Chimeron Queens, it seems, are hot blondes while the males of the species have faces covered in green play dough. We can see who got the rough end of the evolutionary stick there. Still, they seem like an inoffensive enough race, which makes you wonder why the Bannermen hate them so much. We never find out. They just do.

Why do fools fall in love?

As drone bees are attracted to their queen, so dream boat mechanic Billy (David Kinder) is irresistibly drawn to fugitive Chimeron Delta (Belinda Mayne). He’s been messing about with valley girl Ray (Sara Griffiths), but one look at Delta and that’s all over. Like most blokes, he looks a bit shellshocked when he realises his new squeeze has a baby, and as this one’s green and covered in goo he’s got more cause than most.

Billy’s a bit prone to making impulsive decisions. Having dumped Ray at the first swish of a blonde ponytail, he very quickly decides he’s in it for the long haul. He’s not at all phased when the baby grows into a teenager within hours, and as any stepfather will tell him, he should be. But even more drastic is his decision to start ingesting some of Delta’s transformative green gunge and mutate into a Chimeron, so that he and Delta can fly off into the sky together and start work on rebuilding that species. If ya know what I mean. Bannermen, take note.

Just to recap, Billy’s decided to experiment on his own body, with the hope of turning himself into an alien and wants to leave Earth for a new life in outer space with a woman he met yesterday. Even by Who romance standards, that’s quick. Perhaps he’s not thinking straight. After all, he talks to Delta all through the night and then takes her picnicking the next day, which means he can’t have slept for about 36 hours. I reckon he’s fast asleep once that spaceship he leaves in escapes Earth’s atmosphere, and he wakes with a start somewhere in the Oort Cloud and shouts, ‘what the hell was I thinking? I’m not a space bee!’

Singing the blues.

The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy, in his first season and at this stage still playing the part as 90% goofball) and companion Mel (Bonnie Langford, the apex of perkiness) meet Delta and the Bannerblokes when they tag along with a party of vacationing aliens, the Navarinos. They are purple blobby types who like travel and like a bit of cosplay. They feel like creations of Douglas Adams. They’re not particularly phased when their spaceship (disguised as an old bus to fit in with its late 1950s surroundings; better make sure that chameleon circuit doesn’t get stuck) crash lands in Wales not Disneyland. They’re up for a dance and sing-a-long. They seem like loads of fun.

So it comes as a shock when they’re all blown up half way through Part Two.

Juxtaposition is what Doctor Who does, but this is surprisingly jarring. Delta’s tone immediately before and very shortly after the bus explosion is bright and breezy, all sunshine, nostalgia and happy days. The killing of the Navarinos might feel like a sudden, brutal lurch in the opposite direction to the one the story’s taking. Or it might feel like a brilliant inversion against expectations, a sudden reminder that this is serious stuff.

It’s a common tactic used throughout Season 24. A similar stunt is pulled in Dragonfire, when a shuttleload of escaping shoppers explodes. Paradise Towers is at times played for laughs but it is actually a story of systemic murder. And Delta is about genocide, played out like light entertainment. Rarely in Doctor Who‘s history has the darkness of its themes been so far removed from the lightness of its tone (The Myth Makers maybe? Or The Gunfighters?) But it’s the inclusion of a specific, violent incident mid story which wrong foots the viewer. It’s like if City of Death included a scene where Scarlioni massacred dozens of onlookers in the Louvre, but stayed in all other aspects the same. Unsettling.

Happy days are here again.

“Take a look at this butterfly,” lilts Garonwy (Hugh Lloyd), a dotty old beekeeper and one of Delta’s legion of supporting characters. “Arguably one of the most beautiful creatures in the whole of nature. Yet if you were to see a pupae, you’d think it was the ugliest sight you’ve ever seen. But you can’t have one without the other.” That little speech articulates the story’s main theme; that change is an inevitable and essential part of life. Many of Delta‘s diverse elements reflect that theme.

But surely it’s also a commentary on Who itself, at this stage still responding to a new Doctor, a new Script Editor and a new creative energy. Delta and Season 24 have never been particularly popular with fans. In fact they’ve been spectacularly unpopular. But maybe even this story’s critics would recognise that the best of the McCoy era came after this wildly experimental first year, and perhaps we wouldn’t have had one without the other.

LINK to The Sea Devils. Both are about non-human races fighting for survival. And both have um… distinctive incidental scores!

NEXT TIME…   By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes and it’s The Robots of Death.