Season 24 (Dec 5 - Dec 11)

December 5: Time and the Rani Parts One & Two
December 6: Time and the Rani Parts Three & Four
December 7: Paradise Towers Parts One & Two
December 8: Paradise Towers Parts Three & Four
December 9: Delta and the Bannermen Parts One & Two
December 10: Delta and the Bannermen Part Three / Dragonfire Part One
December 11: Dragonfire Parts Two & Three

December 5: Time and the Rani Parts One & Two

So Colin Baker has been sacked, despite the best efforts of John Nathan-Turner to convince Michael Grade to let him stay.  (This was after Nathan-Turner thought he was leaving the show as well, and was therefore somewhat irked to find that no, he was back in as producer for the new season.)  But no; the best Grade will do is to let Colin Baker do one final story to bow out on.  Baker, not unreasonably, refuses to do this.  (As Baker has since said, "[I]t's like your girlfriend giving you the push and saying, 'But you can come back and spend a night with me next year!'"149)  And so the opening story of season 24 becomes the debut story for seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy.  Meanwhile, Nathan-Turner's also hired a new script editor named Andrew Cartmel to help oversee the next three seasons, and he knows he needs a script pronto, so he turns to his old standbys Pip and Jane Baker, who willingly set about first writing Colin Baker's swansong, and then, with a few minor tweaks, McCoy's debut.  Time and the Rani is the result.

The sixth Doctor regenerates into the seventh. (Time and the
Part One) ©BBC
It opens with a pre-titles sequence as the TARDIS (in a cutting-edge-for-1987-but-rather-crude-by-today's-standards CGI sequence) is forced down by the Rani, who then strolls into the TARDIS and tells her alien helper, "Leave the girl; it's the man I want."  But this forced landing, which seems to have only knocked Mel unconscious, is enough to trigger the Doctor's regeneration, because apparently Nathan-Turner has decided that of course you have to show the regeneration.  (Fandom occasionally tries to justify this by saying that the sixth Doctor was dying from whatever adventure happened just before the events seen here (or that this was a deliberate sacrifice to get to the proactive seventh Doctor -- read the New Adventures for more on this idea, if you're so inclined), and that the Rani's device simply triggered what was an impending regeneration anyway; a nice idea, even if there's nothing on screen to substantiate this.)  But if Baker's not coming back for four episodes, he's certainly not coming back for thirty seconds, and so it's painfully obvious that it's McCoy in a blonde wig as the "change-over" happens.  And then it's straight into the new title sequence, complete with new theme arrangement.

I have to confess, I quite like both the new titles and the theme.  It's probably nostalgia in some regards (as the McCoy stories were really, for me, the first set of brand-new Doctor Who that I'd experienced), but there's still quite a bit to enjoy.  The theme's back to a more upbeat, heroic sound -- and we get to hear the middle eight again in the opening credits -- and the title sequence is very swish, with the galaxy swirling about as the TARDIS moves through it; it's a hell of a lot better than that pre-titles CG sequence.  I don't even mind the wink that much; the silver face is a neat touch and the result is a lot better than the abandoned attempt at making the sixth Doctor wink.  It's all rather thrilling.

Sadly, the same can't be said for the actual episode. McCoy's actually not too bad here, even if they keep giving him pratfalls and malapropisms; you can see where his performance will be going in some of the quieter moments here, with a sense of gravity and a touch of world-weariness.  Meanwhile, Kate O'Mara seems to be deliberately playing this with a welcome bit of theatricality, and her impersonation of Mel is really rather entertaining indeed.  But everyone else is largely useless -- the real Mel spends most of her time screaming (well, it feels like it, at least) and the native Lakertyans are a weak-willed bunch, with only the rebel Ikona standing out in any way.  The Doctor's costume change sequence (after swimming in Colin Baker's coat for most of the episode -- and note that he's wearing the Mindwarp/actual trial sequences costume, rather than the "future" Terror of the Vervoids one) feels like it's going through the motions, as if it's a requirement to see McCoy in old Doctors' outfits before showing us the real one -- which itself isn't bad, although the question mark sweater is ludicrous, but doesn't really seem of the same mind as the previous outfits tried on (so, a bit like Tom Baker's costume scene in Robot, then).  It's an oddly joyless scene.

Things sadly don't improve much in part two.  There's more farting about with trying to make the Doctor think he's the one performing this experiment, not the Rani, and Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham have to try and look dignified beneath some rather ugly alien makeup.  And Mel still seems off here -- which is especially strange when you note that there's only been one Mel episode so far that hasn't been written by Pip & Jane.  But no, she's generally unlikeable here until Ikona finally believes her and they start working together.  Her first encounter with the newly-regenerated Doctor is also rather wonderful (unconvincing judo throw at the start aside) -- if the story had been more like this scene things might have gone better.

Still, it is generally nice to look at; it's another quarry, but the effects shots are rather impressive, and care has clearly gone into the exterior of the Rani's lair.  The smoking skeleton of the recently deceased Sarn is also well done, even if surprisingly graphic for what feels like a lightweight story.  And the Tetraps (the hairy creatures with the bat wings) are also designed well, even if they're not as effective when they actually have to do things.  But the visuals alone aren't enough to save this story; let's hope there's a dramatic increase in quality for the last two episodes.

December 6: Time and the Rani Parts Three & Four

A somewhat surprising thing happened; I actually found myself somewhat enjoying these two last episodes.

That's not to say they're actually good (and there are still times when they're very bad indeed), but there are moments that entertain.  Beyus's continued determination to collaborate because the alternative is the death of his people is noble even if it's presented as misguided, and the discussion between Ikona and the Doctor about the idleness of the Lakertyans is also rather nice.  (The Centre of Leisure set is also nicely done.)  Ikona is also one of a handful of good performances on display here (Faroun is another) that do lead to something worth watching.  And while the realization of the giant genius gestalt brain is rather silly, the idea is a striking one.  Plus, even though we've barely got a handle on this new Doctor (and, weirdly, they seem to have decided that his primary characteristic is malapropisms), the Rani's problem of the Doctor causing confusion when he's hooked up to the gestalt is both entertaining and rather difficult to imagine the sixth Doctor pulling off in quite the same way -- which means that this new seventh incarnation is already taking form in new ways.  Finally, while the Rani's interactions with the Doctor in these episodes tend to be of the plot exposition variety, they're still nevertheless entertaining to watch.

The Rani and the Doctor. (Time and the Rani Part Four) ©BBC
Of course, it's not all good; unless I'm drastically misremembering the quality of her later appearances, this is hands down Mel's worst characterization on the show.  She's reduced to lots of screaming and being helpless and very little in the way of anything proactive.  You'd think the team who wrote Mel's debut story (where she's considerably more interesting than she is here) would have given her more to do, but no.  She's pure background material.  There are also some dodgy overdubs (notably, "Look out, they kill!" before the insect lights have killed anyone) and some awkward plotting (everyone points it out, but the Rani's plan is foiled because she doesn't have a rocket with an adjustable trajectory).

But considering how poor the first two episodes were, I'm genuinely surprised to find that these two have risen from the level of "painful to view" up to "barely watchable" -- high praise, I know, but considering where this story appeared to be going it's something of a welcome change.  If you're willing to just switch your brain off and essentially watch a broad pantomime version of Doctor Who, this story just about fits the bill.  It's understandable if you don't want to do that, but even then there are a handful of decent bits and bobs in these four episodes to reward the patient and/or generous viewer.  All damning with faint praise, I realize, but it's some small comfort to know that in the final analysis, Time and the Rani isn't a complete waste of time.

December 7: Paradise Towers Parts One & Two

And suddenly the McCoy era arrives.

There's definitely a different feeling about these first two episodes of Paradise Towers.  I wonder if it's partly because this is really the first story edited by Andrew Cartmel (his name is on Time and the Rani, but by his own admission he didn't actually do much work on it), but it's certainly distinct from anything we've seen in quite some time.

The first thing that's worth noticing is how filthy and dirty everything looks.  This is a good thing, as the Towers are meant to be run down and dirty, but they really do a nice job with all the graffiti and caked-on dirt along the edges of corridors.  Even the frosted windows look dingy as they let brownish light in.  And thankfully, there's a lot of nice moody lighting to help sell the scene even more.  When one thinks back to the set of Warriors of the Deep, and the floodlighting everywhere, you start to realize how much of a refreshing change this is.

The second thing worth noting is how distinct and reasonably well-defined all the various inhabitants are.  Yes, there are some casting problems (some of the Caretakers seem too young, all of the Kangs seem too old, and Pex isn't nearly as much of a Stallone-esque meathead as the script wants him to be), but the striking thing about this is how easy it is to look past these problems.  Stephen Wyatt's script sparkles with enough idiosyncrasies (the Kangs' slang terms, the Caretakers' reliance on their rule book) that the characteristics of these different groups comes through, and it doesn't really matter that the Red Kangs look like they're in their 20s -- you know what the story is getting at, and that works just fine.  And it certainly helps that the structure of this story is different enough from other recent Who stories, in both concept and execution, to maintain the audience's interest.

And into this environment the Doctor and Mel are inserted.  This is a story where McCoy starts to really put his stamp on the show -- his reactions here feel fresh and unique to this incarnation, and thankfully the malapropisms have disappeared.  And while Mel is wandering the Towers more or less separated from the Doctor, she more than manages to hold her own -- her conversations with Tilda and Tabby, the two Rezzies, are enjoyable, and she gets some genuinely good moments with Pex (her chastising of his destructive behavior, her crestfallen reaction to learning that he's a fraud).  This feels like a world that existed long before the TARDIS arrived, rather than one with a specific problem for the Doctor to solve (as the recent crop of stories has occasionally felt).

So far Paradise Towers is smart, clever, and genuinely funny at times (such as the "Are you annoying these old ladies?" gag), and while there are some problems that show up here and there, they're generally easy to look past.  A rather wonderful breath of fresh air, but can the concluding episodes keep it up?

December 8: Paradise Towers Parts Three & Four

The Doctor tries to convince the Blue Kangs and the Red Kangs to
work together. (Paradise Towers Part Three) ©BBC
Part three is in much the same vein as parts one and two and is just as entertaining to watch.  The cannibalistic nature of Tilda and Tabby (heavily hinted at in parts one and two but fully revealed in part two's cliffhanger) is rather shocking but entirely in keeping with the atmosphere of the story, and I like how Pex gets to be a hero by bursting in at just the right time, even if he doesn't realize it.  There are also some nice moments between the Chief Caretaker and the Doctor -- particularly the way in which the Doctor and the Chief end up switching positions during the interrogation -- and while the creature in the basement with the glowing eyes is a bit daft-looking, the idea behind it is still compelling.

Really, the only real major problems come in part four, and that's almost entirely because of Richard Briers' decision to play the Kroagnon-controlled Chief Caretaker as a sort of zombie, almost literally slack-jawed and wide-eyed staring as he shuffles through the corridors.  And I don't even mind that too much -- Briers seems to be playing a character who's unused to inhabiting a body, so while it might be playing it a bit too broadly you can still see what he's going for.  And this is offset by all the other good stuff going on.  Watching all the various groups in Paradise Towers come together is really nice, and their team efforts to destroy the robotic Cleaners are suitably entertaining.  And while Pex comes off as a coward for a lot of it (his yelling for help while Mel is being attacked is hilarious -- although, as a side note, the shot of the machine dying after Mel shoots it in the eye is really really good), he gets to redeem himself in the final moments.  This is followed by a touching memorial that shows how the various groups are continuing to work together and genuinely coexist in the Towers.

It's by no means perfect, but Paradise Towers does a lot of things right.  The ideas are really strong and, while we might wish for better realization of those ideas here and there, they still shine through.  There's a distinctive look and feel in the Towers; visually, there's a unity at play here that makes this place feel both real and slightly caricatured.  In this respect this is (with the possible exception of parts of The Ultimate Foe) the closest Doctor Who has gotten to looking like its comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine; it's all too easy to imagine this as a storyline there, with art by John Ridgway.  This gives everything a heightened, fantastic (in the best sense of the word) feel, and this leads to one of Paradise Towers' main strengths: a world where the pictures and the dialogue are telling the same story.  It's stylistic and charming, with just enough of a skew to keep your attention throughout.  It's also a uniquely seventh Doctor story (certainly it's hard to imagine Wyatt's particular blending of dialogue styles between groups surviving being edited by Eric Saward, but in Andrew Cartmel's hands this aspect clearly comes through) that manages to be fun, fresh, and genuinely entertaining.  As I said, it's not perfect (some of the aforementioned casting, the impractical design of the Cleaners), but it's a lot easier to forgive this story's sins than those of several other stories (particularly recently).  Build high for happiness, indeed.

December 9: Delta and the Bannermen Parts One & Two

Delta and the Bannermen is Doctor Who's first 3-part story since 1964's Planet of Giants (unless you count The Two Doctors, and nobody really does), and it's the first 3-part story intended as such from the outset.  And after the somewhat brutal opening (and are the Chimeron soldiers meant to look like army men, or is that a coincidence?), the fun really begins.

Because the overriding sense throughout these two episodes is one of energy and fun.  Even when danger seems imminent (such as throughout part two, with the impending arrival of Gavrok and his Bannermen), it's still an exciting sort of danger; you want to find out what will happen next, rather than dread what's coming.  That's not to say it's a light and breezy story (the destruction of a bus filled with alien tourists is proof enough of that), but rather that they've got the balance between entertainment and menace right.

It was a good move, filming this at an actual holiday camp, because it gives everything a feel of verisimilitude as well as brightens things up no end.  (Even if the camp does look a tad rundown in some shots -- but that's really what you want, isn't it?)  Add in the surrounding countryside, which also looks gorgeous, and this is certainly a story that's nice to look at.  And not only that, but it's filled with great actors as well.  There are the big names, like Ken Dodd and Stubby Kaye (Stubby Kaye!  In Doctor Who!), but all the supporting actors are wonderful as well, with Richard Davies as Burton, Hugh Lloyd as Goronwy, Sara Griffiths as Ray, Don Henderson as the amazingly evil Gavrok... everyone does a great job of making this story as entertaining and engaging as they can.  Even Bonnie Langford seems to snap into focus, as Mel is asked to be more of an ordinary woman than a genius computer programmer with an eidetic memory (why Pip & Jane Baker ever thought perfect recall was an ideal characteristic for a companion is beyond me), and Langford seems far more interested (and interesting) here than in earlier stories.  And while the Doctor has resorted to a few malapropisms, they're generally low in the mix while his other characteristics rise to the surface -- almost all of his interactions with Ray are rather wonderful to behold, giving off a sense of awkwardness mixed with genuine care and concern.  McCoy is really coming into his own here, and the cliffhanger, where he's outraged at Gavrok's shooting at his white truce flag, is very well played.

It's a quick-moving story (well, only three episodes -- it has to be, right?), with some great dialogue ("Now, let me try and get this right.  Now, are you telling me that you are not the Happy Hearts Holiday Club from Bolton, but instead are spacemen in fear of an attack from some other spacemen, and because of the danger, you want me to evacuate the entire camp?") and some fabulous performances.  It doesn't feel forced or strained.  So far Delta and the Bannermen is firing on all cylinders.

December 10: Delta and the Bannermen Part Three / Dragonfire Part One

Considering how they've only got an episode left, there's a surprising amount of incident packed into these 25 minutes. There are a number of skirmishes between the Bannermen and various parties as they try to track Delta down, but there's also time for some quieter moments as well, and for a proper ending too.  This means that the whole episode feels really quick and exciting.

Ray examines Billy's bike while the Doctor, Mel, Weismuller, Hawk,
and Goronwy look on. (Delta and the Bannermen Part Three) ©BBC
And there are definitely some great moments here: the tracking device hanging from the goat, the honey trap set for Gavrok and his men, the way in which Goronwy's description of bee behavior mirrors Billy's efforts to become a's a well thought-out episode with a definite undercurrent of intelligence, elevated by the little touches present throughout the story.  It's also nice how humane the ending is; other than Gavrok, the Bannermen are left alive to be taken a way for trial, rather than all dead -- and Gavrok dies because he falls into the booby trap he laid for the Doctor, so there's a sense of poetic justice as well.

Delta and the Bannermen is a quick, breezy story from new writer Malcolm Kohll -- it's energetic, entertaining, and charming, with a welcome summery feel to the proceedings.  And, more impressively, there's not really a sense that anything is rushed (which won't be the case for many of the 3-parters coming up) -- everything happens at the right moment, and you don't get the feeling that you're missing anything.  It is something of a "slight" story -- nothing here strikes you as Important or Monumental -- but frankly that's a plus; it's about time Doctor Who got back to making fun stories that aren't weighed down by excessive continuity or inflated self-importance, and Delta and the Bannermen fits the bill admirably.

But now it's time for part one of Dragonfire, which was promoted as the 150th Doctor Who story -- a number which involves not counting Shada (fair enough) and splitting The Trial of a Time Lord into four stories (something that Nathan-Turner insisted back in season 23 wasn't the case).150  But anything for a bit of promotion -- especially at this point in the show's history...

Dragonfire also bears the personal distinction of being the first new Doctor Who that I actually remember watching.  I have earlier memories of the show, but they were all of stories that had aired a number of times (such as Spearhead from Space).  Dragonfire, on the other hand, was a brand-new story, and as I was sick at the time, I got to stay home and watch it as it was broadcast (instead of on tape later) -- which is probably why I remember it.

The episode itself isn't terribly memorable though.  There are some nice interactions between Glitz, the Doctor, and Mel, as they encounter each other in an Iceworld cafĂ©.  We're also introduced to a young woman named Ace who, frankly, makes Mel look like cardboard in contrast.  It's not a perfect characterization by any means (there are a number of less-than-stellar moments, such as Ace yelling about not having parents), but what's striking is how much more interesting Ace seems as a character than Mel does.

The villain of the piece, Kane, is suitably creepy, and I like the idea both of how he's so cold that he can kill people by touching them, and by the mark of Kane that Belazs bears on her palm.  "As long as you bear my mark, I own you," Kane tells Belazs.  There's also enough going on to keep things interesting, but nothing really stands out so far.

Well, except for that damn cliffhanger.  Dragonfire Part One is rather infamous for having one of the strangest cliffhangers of all time, where the Doctor appears to be trying to climb down a sheer ice cliff by hanging from his question-mark umbrella.  It might be acceptable if they had given us any sort of indication as to why the Doctor is trying to get down there, but as it is it looks like they just wanted to give us a literal cliffhanger, rationale be damned.  But that's the image we're left with as this episode closes.  Sigh.

December 11: Dragonfire Parts Two & Three

Ace and Mel in the depths of Iceworld. (Dragonfire Part Two) ©BBC
Happily, these last two episodes are more interesting than the first one was.  The attempted betrayal of Kane by his lackeys Kracauer and Belazs is portrayed well, and it also foreshadows how Kane will eventually meet his end.  So they're useful scenes in more ways than one.  The Dragon surprises by being rather friendly, instead of a dangerous killer (unless, of course, you're trying to kill it) -- a welcome surprise.  And while the hologram scene in the Singing Trees area is pure exposition, it's at least delivered in an interesting way.

It's nice that Dragonfire is filled with a number of good moments and scenes, as it means that it has a greater impact on the viewers.  Whether it's the genuinely funny scene of the Doctor ending up discussing philosophy with a security guard ("You've no idea what a relief it is for me to have such a stimulating philosophical discussion.  There are so few intellectuals about these days.  Tell me, what do you think of the assertion that the semiotic thickness of a performed text varies according to the redundancy of auxiliary performance codes?"151) or the genuinely impressive manner of Kane's suicide (with his face melting away, rather like Raiders of the Lost Ark), there's a lot to recommend this story -- it's certainly the most accessible story of season 24 for people (both at the time and now, if fan polls are anything to go by).

There are some duff moments, though; I'm not really sure what the point of having the little girl, Stellar, wandering around the restricted area is, as she doesn't really interact with anyone, and the attempt to do Aliens (the ANT hunt) on a Doctor Who budget doesn't come off at all.  And while Mel is better in these two episodes in her interactions with Ace, her decision at the end to leave comes totally out of left field, and barely any time is really spent dwelling on her choice: a brief speech from the Doctor ("That's right, yes, you're going.  Been gone for ages.  Already gone, still here, just arrived, haven't even met you yet.  It all depends on who you are and how you look at it.  Strange business, time") and then it's off to keep Glitz on the straight-and-narrow.  It's the sort of farewell that would be almost unthinkable nowadays, but that's how what turned out to be the last companion departure of the 20th century went.

Still, as I said, there's quite a bit to enjoy about Dragonfire.  It's not perfect by any means, and it's not my personal favorite of the season (that's Paradise Towers), but it's an entertaining enough story with enough incident and cleverness to keep you amused.  The feeling of freshness and energy that's been present throughout the whole season is still here, and that means that even when stories falter a bit, they're still worthwhile -- and Dragonfire is no exception.

For some reason fandom generally seems to be down on season 24.  Time and the Rani certainly doesn't help things one bit (and the shortened season means that this accounts for over a quarter of season 24's screen time), and it's true that there aren't any out and out classics this time around.  But what's eminently clear is the sense of renewal blowing through this show like a crisp wind.  Andrew Cartmel has stepped in as script editor, and John Nathan-Turner seems to be giving him quite a bit of leeway to remake the show more how he sees fit.  It's significant that, with the exception of Pip & Jane Baker (who were hired by Nathan-Turner rather than Cartmel), none of the writers during the McCoy era have written for the show before -- and in fact, for many of them this is one of their first gigs.  This lends everything a freshness, a vitality, and a sense that they can do anything -- and crucially, there's no one there to simply tell them "no".  The production team is instead much more willing to work with the writers to realize their visions -- not always successfully, but with more hits than misses.  This is no longer a show constrained by continuity or accepted beliefs about how the show works; instead it's treating the show's format as a sandbox that can do anything and say anything they want, and the start of this new approach can be seen here in season 24.  It's not perfect, but nevertheless this is the clear beginning of Doctor Who's creative renaissance.


149 Howe-Stammers-Walker, The Handbook: The Sixth Doctor, p70.
150 We'll get into even more complicated numbering shenanigans when "Planet of the Dead" -- billed as Doctor Who's 200th story -- comes along.
151 This is a reference to a line from Doctor Who - The Unfolding Text -- an academic work that I have to confess I've never managed to plow all the way through.