At long last, we’ve done it! We’ve reached the end (or almost, anyway) of our Classic Doctor Who rewatch! I say “almost”, because my plan is to include the 1996 television movie with this rewatch, and also to make a “final thoughts” post (or possibly two, if it gets too long). Today, however, we’re looking at the twenty-sixth and final season, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor. Let’s get started!
It’s goodbyes all around, as we open with Battlefield, and say goodbye to UNIT. It’s Carbury, England, in the year 1997 (coincidentally, the year I graduated high school), and strange happenings are afoot. It’s Doctor Who’s take on the King Arthur legends, but oddly, it doesn’t deal much with Arthur at all; he’s seen to be in stasis, and then at the end, it’s revealed that he was dead all along, and his prophesied return was just hype. Instead, we deal with Morgaine and Mordred, plus a number of knights in their services, and a summoned demon called the Destroyer. Helping the Doctor and Ace is the loyal knight Ancelyn (I really hope I’m spelling these correctly…); and the Doctor, as it turns out, is Merlin. Of course there’s a catch: He himself doesn’t remember being Merlin, as—it’s suggested—those events are still in his future, and even in a different regeneration.
There are some great moments: Ace pulling Excalibur and playing Lady of the Lake; Bessie making a reappearance; and Morgaine meeting Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart for the first time, at the business end of his gun. Oh, did I mention him? Yes, the Brigadier makes his final classic appearance here! He’s retired now, from both UNIT and his teaching career, and happily married to his second wife, Doris (not Kate’s mother); but he is recalled by the new head of UNIT in Britain, Brigadier Winifred Bambera, who is NOT prepared to deal with the Doctor. (Nicholas Courtney will reprise the role in The Sarah Jane Adventures episode Enemy of the Bane; and after Courtney’s—and the character’s—death, he’ll be revived in Cyberman form in Death in Heaven, for one final salute.)
The Doctor’s darker side begins to show here, as he is quite ruthless regarding Morgaine and her troops. He makes frequent references to his past, and even to his future. The serial contains the final scene in the TARDIS interior; the console room is darkened during the scene. Behind the scenes, this was because the wall flats had been accidentally junked after last season; the walls seen here were hasty, cheap replacements, and the lights were dimmed to hide the reality. This scene gives us the “across the boundaries separating one universe from another” line, which was used in the “freezing Gallifrey” scene in The Day of the Doctor. On Earth, the Doctor uses his and Liz Shaw’s now-outdated UNIT ID cards to get himself and Ace inside the perimeter; but it doesn’t work as planned, leading to the Brigadier’s recall.
For reasons unknown to me, this serial is the lowest rated (in original run) of the entire classic series. It’s quite a shame; I thought it was a great story, and a lot of fun to watch. It was a little sad to watch the Brigadier’s final appearance; but it was good to see that UNIT is in good hands.
An oddity of this season, and something not seen since the Third Doctor, is that nearly the entire season occurs on Earth. For Ghost Light, we travel back to 1883, to Ace’s hometown of Perivale, and specifically to the large house called Gabriel Chase. We learn that, in her own time, Ace burned this house to the ground, due to an evil presence she felt there. That presence proves to be an incorporeal alien called Light, who, when defeated by the Doctor, dissipates into the house. It’s the story of three aliens from the same mission, each of which has very different plans for the Earth and its inhabitants. It’s a bit of a protest against the idea of evolution, as all three aliens react to the concept in different ways. In the end, Ace must face down some of the literal ghosts of her past.
This serial was the low point of the season for me, and I found it a little hard to maintain my interest. To be fair, it’s the only serial I didn’t care for this season. In tone and subject matter, it’s very reminiscent of the NuWho episode The Unquiet Dead. Interestingly, it’s the final serial to be produced; the order of the season was reshuffled during production. As a result, the following serial has Ace mentioning “an old house in Perivale”; this was supposed to be foreshadowing, but was negated by the switch.
We’ve been building up to it for three years, and now we get some answers in The Curse of Fenric. The Doctor and Ace arrive at Maiden’s Point, a secret military base in Northumberland, in May 1943. It’s hard to believe now, but this is the first (and only classic) serial to be set in World War II; it will be followed by several NuWho stories, including The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, Victory of the Daleks, and Let’s Kill Hitler! The enemy is Fenric, an ancient evil who is established in spinoff media to be a Great Old One, one of several beings from a previous universe (similar to the Animus from The Web Planet and, possibly, the Celestial Toymaker). The Doctor fought Fenric in the third century, and using a chess gambit, imprisoned him in the Shadow Dimensions (interfacing with our world via an oriental flask). Here, at long last, he escapes and challenges the Doctor again; and he doesn’t come alone. He brings with him the Haemovores, vampires from a terrible alternate future of humanity, who are led by the Ancient One, a hideously mutated and powerful Haemovore from the future.
Fenric, as it turns out, has been manipulating the Doctor’s path via the people around him. It was Fenric who caused Ace to be transported to Iceworld, and who enabled Lady Peinforte to time-travel in Silver Nemesis. (The chessboard in that episode was also intended as foreshadowing.) Those individuals, plus several others present in this story, are “Wolves of Fenric”—descendants of an individual who was touched by Fenric’s curse, and thus they can now be manipulated by him. Ace, in fact, establishes her own timeline here by saving the life of a woman named Kathleen and her baby, Audrey…who turn out to be Ace’s grandmother and mother, respectively. Fenric’s manipulation is matched by the Doctor, however; the Doctor let’s his darker side show when he insults Ace to break her faith in him, allowing the conflict to come to a resolution. Though he makes it up to her later, it was a cold trick to play on her, especially given that he couldn’t have known it would work out as it did, with the Ancient One turning on Fenric and destroying them both.
The backdrop for all of this is the creation of the ULTIMA machine, a codebreaking machine loosely based on the real-life Enigma machine, the German enciphering device broken in large part by Alan Turing. It’s a decent idea; however, a part of the plot is that the Soviets intend to steal the machine from the British. That makes little sense to me, as the British and the Soviets were allies during the war. Still, we can handwave it, given that this is a fictional universe. In the end, there’s much more that could be said—it’s a complex plot and a convoluted serial—but we’ll move on. I will say that I greatly enjoyed this story, and was sorry to see it end.
Finally, we come to Survival, the last and final serial of classic Doctor Who. It’s an apt name, I’ve always thought, as the series went into “survival mode” after this, living on in novels and comics and—later—audio dramas. It’s the final appearance of the last of the three great perennial enemies of the Doctor: The Master. (We’ve already said goodbye to the Daleks and the Cybermen in season twenty-five.) For this serial, we return to Perivale, but in the present day (1989, that is); I think it’s fitting that the series should end with a contemporary story, as that’s how it began. (Or I should say, almost contemporary; it was broadcast in November and December of that year, but the visible setting appears to be late summer/early fall.) Interestingly, the serial itself doesn’t state that it’s 1989, though context makes it likely; confirmation of the date is found in the New Adventures novel, First Frontier.
The Master, it seems, is trapped on an unnamed planet; his TARDIS is nowhere to be seen, so presumably it has been lost. It’s a unique world; it has the power to transform its inhabitants into feral, catlike Cheetah people, and in very short order. The Master himself is infected with this transformation, visible in his now-catlike eyes and fangs. He is able to send Cheetah individuals to Earth, but can’t leave himself. Once there, they hunt and abduct humans as prey, teleporting them back to the Cheetah world. He seeks the Doctor for assistance in escaping; if successful, he will carry the planet’s contagion everywhere he goes. The planet is tied to its people; their violence is reflected in the planet’s geological violence. The situation is complicated when Ace, too, is infected. She is freed when the Doctor returns her to Earth, along with some of her kidnapped friends. The Master, too, escapes, but is intercepted by the Doctor and transported back to the planet, where they fight their final battle. In the end, the planet breaks apart, and the Doctor escapes, leaving the Master ostensibly to die.
Of course, we know that he doesn’t die; he’ll be seen again as early as the television movie. That film uses the cat-eye motif as a symbolic connection to the end of the series, as the Master himself is free of the contagion by then. (In fact, he frees himself of it, and gains a new body, in the aforementioned First Frontier.) However, this is Anthony Ainley’s last on-screen appearance in the role, as he does not appear in the movie.
There are some great moments in this episode. Ace, commenting on the Master’s connection to the Doctor, asks the Doctor, “Do you know any nice people? You know, ordinary people, not power-crazed nutters trying to take over the galaxy?!” (Which, in my opinion, pretty much sums up all of the Doctor’s old relationships…) All the Doctor can say is “I don’t think he’s trying to take over the galaxy this time…” There’s a great moment where the Doctor asks Ace where she wants to go, and she simply says “Home”…then, seeing his crestfallen face, she adds “You know, the TARDIS!” And of course, there’s the famous final monologue, which I’ve included below. It was written by Andrew Cartmel, and dubbed over the final scene; notably, it was recorded on November 23rd, 1989, 26 years to the day after the premiere of Doctor Who. I can’t think of a better way to go out.
“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where 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, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold! Come on, Ace — we’ve got work to do!”
This story, naturally, has some “lasts”, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned. It’s the final of only three serials to be filmed entirely on Outside Broadcast Video (the others being The Sontaran Experiment and The Curse of Fenric) and the final of five to be filmed entirely on location (the two previously mentioned, and Spearhead from Space and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy). It’s the last to use the most recent opening and theme; the last to use the TARDIS prop that had been in use most recently; and the last to feature the Doctor’s face in the opening until NuWho’s The Snowmen, with Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor. Notably, one of the supporting cast Lisa Bowerman (playing the Cheetah person Karra) will go on to voice Bernice Summerfield, a popular companion and spinoff character in the audios. Overall, it’s a great story, with a great and menacing take on the Master; despite being the televised equivalent of a furry convention, it’s a great way to end the classic run.
Next time: The Wilderness Years, and the 1996 television movie, in which we meet Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor! See you there.
Bonus: I took a few minutes and watched the 1993 Children In Need special, Dimensions in Time. It’s twelve minutes of glorious nonsense, and I won’t dwell long on it, since it’s almost universally deemed to be non-canon. Taken in that vein, it’s a nice little coda to the series; it features all of the Doctors (with Hartnell and Troughton appearing only in still cameos, as they were both deceased by this time) and a laundry list of companions: Susan Foreman, Victoria Waterfield, Liz Shaw, Mike Yates, Sarah Jane Smith, Leela, Nyssa, Peri Brown, Mel Bush, K9 Mark I, Romana II, and the Brigadier. It’s rather short; its two parts run five and seven minutes respectively, with about five minutes of framing broadcast that featured John Pertwee. Its villain is the Rani, who brings her own companion, named Cyrian. Her plan involves pulling the various Doctors and companions from their timelines; as a result, the Doctors and companions keep randomly switching places, creating some odd pairings. The Rani’s “menagerie” includes a Cyberman and a Time Lord; the Daleks would have appeared, but the scenes were deleted due to a dispute with Terry Nation’s estate. There are some references back, including the “Doctor Who?” and “When I say run, RUN!” running jokes, and an appearance by Bessie. The special was a crossover with the show EastEnders, which I have often heard of but have never seen, therefore those jokes were lost on me. (Interestingly, it’s that show that most strongly makes this special non-canon, as Army of Ghosts makes it clear that EastEnders is a television show in the DW universe.) There was a phone-in voting element to determine the outcome of the story; scenes were filmed for the losing option as well, but never used. Overall, however, it must have been a success, as it raised 101,000 pounds in one night.
All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.