Doctor Who: Countdown to New-Whovember – The Classic Whovember Recap!

Whovember - classic Doctor Who retrospective

AKA. A warm-up to…  New Whovember: Three Doctors, Two show runners and War Doctor in a right state…

The sequel to the classic Whovember is brewing like the Oncoming Storm…While New Whovember will bring us bang up to date with the 21st century adventures of the Mad Man in a Box, a recap of Classic Whovember’s delves into that happy time before the Great Time War.

WHOVEMBER WAS A MONTH-LONG LOOK AT CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO. THE MONUMENTAL 26-YEAR RUN STRETCHING FROM TOTTER’S LANE IN EAST LONDON ON A  FOG-BOUND NIGHT IN 1963 TO…  THE SUN-DRENCHED, CAT-STALKED STREETS OF PERIVALE.  Though that may be preferable to the Albert Square of, er, the East End that popped up (so-un canonically) in 1993, those original, halcyon years covered far more ground than those eight or so miles suggest.  It almost seems a shame to consider the show’s Millennial trip to San Francisco. But in the midst of the show’s hugely successful 21st century relaunch, the Eighth Doctor can’t be allowed to sit in the middle.

With more than a few highs and lows over the years, as you might expect from a show designed to test the limits of what television formats can do, Who managed to retain some form of stiff upper lip throughout its run at least.  And #Whovember wasn’t just a retrospective.  In the anniversary month of 2013, it was a series that set out to take an individual Doctor and a different, crucial aspect of the show’s myth, and look at them through the prism of a plot arc or set of serials.  As usual with these things, much like piloting a TARDIS, it wasn’t an exact art. The original series was issued unchronologically, ensuring that no Doctor sat adjacent to another. For this summary, we’ll straighten out the time stream… Let’s start at the beginning.

#1 – “We’re trying to defeat the Daleks, not start a jumble sale” 

 Serials that mark one of the definitive actions of the classic run1

The First Doctor provided the perfect opportunity to look at the show’s  legacy through two successive serials, 1965’s The Space Museum and the Dalek romp of the same year, The Chase.  These could also be considered the serial with far too much ambition and the serial with absolutely no plot.  But one strong element in the defense of both is that they do both feature Daleks. And a young Boba Fett – young Jeremy Bulloch as part of a revolution so pathetic it probably triggered the Time War in disgust.  Yes, coming two years into the show’s early, heavy schedule, both serials receive their fair share of negative criticism it’s fair to say. But both also throw up some interesting ideas and not just in terms of their production.  Perhaps their stand-out role in shaping Who’s legacy is that they they stage a show first, a definitive action of the classic run that remains a challenge and opportunity for the show today: the loss of the last two original companions, Ian and Barbara.  Undoubtedly important, could it be, as remarked in Whovember #1, that…

“They’re the two that make the crotchety old exile get involved.  If not, he would have presumably happily stayed in the East End, hoping that regeneration wouldn’t catch him in the chemists or at a school parents’ day. “ 

#2 – “He can wear whatever face he wants”

The Doctor most likely to show up at a selfish reunion2

The arc Whovember followed for the Second Doctor’s was a simple if far-reaching one– he’s proven to be the Doctor most likely to show up at a selfish reunion.  Not only the Doctor who brought us regeneration, but one sat at the perfect point to team-up with his fellow incarnations more than anyone else.  It’s fitting for a Doctor so keen to cross his own time stream, but he’s also the one Doctor who’s stock rose the most in the 50th anniversary year. The ‘rediscovery’ of missing serials The Enemy of the World and the Web of Fear, alongside the climax of the Matt’s Smith and the Eleventh Doctor’s tribute act, were undoubtedly major factors in that.  Neatly, only the Eleventh Doctor can match his second self in temporal carelessness.

It’s sometimes easy to forget what an important Doctor the second one was, considering that so many of his serials remain missing.  Luck and the huge personality of Patrick Troughton made his many appearances and re-appearances up to the mid-1980s possible. He was ably represented in the Golden anniversary specials not just through stock footage on television but via the power of Frazer Hine’s rather solid impersonation in Big Finish’s The Light at the End.  From the stomping history building pantomimes of the Three and Five Doctors (“Those Ancient Gallifreyans certainly had far more fun…”) to the New Adventures prescient and Season 6B teasing Two Doctors, that Cosmic Hobo fits every era of the show’s Classic and New run with an ease other Doctor’s must envy.  One of the finest actors to take on the role, Troughton secured the show’s longevity through attention to the smallest details.  As Whovember #2 remarked on The Two Doctors

“…Just catch the quick glance that the Second Doctor flashes over his successor’s coat.”   And still, despite everything… “He carried more hope” with him than many of his successors. It was a trick wisely picked up by the Eleventh Doctor.

#3 – “Ghosts from the Future”

The recent full trailer almost runs as a tribute to the Third Doctor’s adventures3

Almost  a year on from the anniversary, the crown of fast rising stock has fallen towards the Second Doctor’s rather more colourful successor.  Already referenced in the incoming Twelfth Doctor’s attire and demeanour, the recent full trailer almost runs as a tribute to the Third Doctor’s adventures: Medieval castles, dinosaurs stomping through London, Silurians, rather ravishing female companions… It’s all rather Jon Pertwee. The most recent of Doctor Who Magazine’s regular polls ranking all the show’s stories found few Pertwee stories bothering the top 20, but tellingly, he was the only Time Lord to with every serial of his first season making the top 100.

Solid, consistent, deep, but not stunning then. or that’s certainly how the Third Doctor’s first Quatermass-inspired season ran. But things would soon change pace. While this Doctors disdain for Knights of the British Empire remained, it’s a vastly different show come the end of his tenure. Five seasons packed into the early seventies saw more than a change of velvet jacket. We discovered the name for his planet of origin, saw the arrival of the aforementioned Silurians, Sontarans, Autons and crucially… The Master.  It was the start of the heyday of legendary Who writer Robert Holmes. But this time of colour revolution wasn’t all new starts.

After a well earned four year rest, the Third Doctor’s tenure also saw the return of the Daleks. And unwittingly, it brought their demise (their second – in many ways a real demise after the definitive demise of The Evil of the Daleks) through three rather underrated serials by Louis Marks and then returning pepper pot creator Terry Nation.  None of these stories are perfect, but each commendably tried to do something different with the pepper-pot despots. Season Nine’s rather glorious Day of the Daleks is a rare attempt by the show to tackle temporal paradox.  Planet of the Daleks marks the second serial of a storyline intended to match the Masterplan-style epics of the 1960s, fondly remembered for its colourised prime-time airing on BBC1 in November 1993.  The return of the Thals, jungle warfare, cryogenics, carnivorous plants – it’s a technicolour triumph. Finally, the sensationally titled Death to the Daleks takes most of the flack for paring things back. But it is a wonderfully atmospheric adventure from the Third Doctor’s final season, carrying the sense of impending change like every story that year. The shining beacon, the mist wrapped gullies, the ending later ‘stolen’ by Pyramids of Mars… It’s certianly different. Although replacing the Daleks’ armoury with machine guns doesn’t work, as the Whovember observed…

“Most of all though, Death is Doctor Who’s version of Alien 3.  It’s a similar attempt to de-power and even the odds a little between two familiar and opposing forces.  Unfortunately, that idea seldom works.”

But still, since when does a showcase of the Dalek’s innate treachery present a problem? it’s what you expect of these cunning monsters. And it ends in a rather surprising suicide bombing to boot.  It was a true death in many ways, a definite end of an era, a last stand.  When new companion Sarah-Jane Smith was to meet them next, they’d be outshone by a single figure from their past…

#4 – “Harry Sullivan is an Imbecile”

Is there a greater continuous season of Doctor Who?

When it came to the Fourth Doctor, there followed the only Whovember retrospective to take on an entire season.  A cheat maybe, but it’s worth it. It asked the question: Is there a greater continuous season of Doctor Who?4

There are blips in Season 12 of course, the weakest stories sit at the front and the back. But those stories, Robot and Revenge of the Cybermen have their own wry appeal as bookends to an extraordinary mini-arc that removes the fresh “tooth and curls” Doctor from his TARDIS and takes him from the desolate hope of The Ark in Space to the sadistic futility of The Sontaran Experiment and on to the hard-hitting causal and moral ramifications of The Genesis of the Daleks.  There are many reasons why this season works so very well.  The strong continuity between two creative teams, the mastery of Robert Holmes’ script editing, the strength of the foes and two perfectly pitched companions supporting an extraordinarily confident Tom Baker.  And there’s the link… When the running joke of Harry Sullivan’s clumsiness comes to fruition in the fairly ridiculous Revenge of the Cybermen

“Still, the peak of the running ‘Harry’ joke makes the planet-fall worthwhile.  Almost simultaneously causing a rock slide and destroying the planet is comedy ‘gold’. It’s a shame the young Doctor would soon be considered surplus to requirements alongside the new athletic Doctor.”

So yes, Season 12 still stands as the show’s greatest year. But what’s staggering is that there were were further peaks to come for the every man’s Doctor…

#5 – “…Dreams are important” 

 It wasn’t a promising start…5

The 1980s signalled a shift of tone, and following the golden quality of the 1970s, probably the Classic series’ greatest range of quality.  Well regarded for his concept and personality, but certainly not on the strength of his stories as a whole, came the younger Fifth Doctor. It wasn’t a promising start.  He inherited a full TARDIS and went on to suffer the show’s most vivid, and mis-judged, companion loss alongside laughable monsters.  Still, there’s probably no more over-used word in the whole Whovember season than ‘Androzani‘. And with good reason. It’s stunning.

Fittingly, and prescient of the post-2005 revival, two of the Fifth’s best stories relate to one of his companions – the two season tussle between Tegan and the Mara.  It’s a great comment on Kinda that sequel Snakedance was commissioned for the Twentieth anniversary season of returning villains.  The fastest turnaround for an exceptionally different type of monster. It’s a great comment on the depth of writer Christopher Bailey’s scripts that they are so well regarded and tonally distinct. The two stories mark a definite highlight of the Fifth Doctor’s patchy career:

“The Mara’s exploits are not only fresh and referential, but constitutes a story ark that reaches far and wide for its inspiration. letting each one unravel like a very leisurely snake.”

#6 – “He’s Dangling on the Edge of Oblivion”

Titles that always seem to stick in the throat.6

Few Doctor’s are as much maligned as the intriguing Sixth Doctor.  My first Doctor, I was totally wrapped up in the Trial of Time Lord and his earlier blackly comic travails against Davros in the mid-1980s.  (Un)fortunately and perhaps not coincidentally, I had also dodged two bullets until Whovember let me little option…  The Twin Dilemma and Timelash – two broad pieces of evidence often used to beat tarnished 1980’s Who.  Both titles that always seem to stick in the throat.

Incredibly the Sixth Doctor’s debut, always up against it thanks to the incurable Androzani effect, often ranks lower than Timelash.  In the recent DWM poll it unbelievably managed to land a lonely last place. Is it the misguided companion throttle?  That is a ridiculous mis-step whether it’s the worst and most damaging factor or not.  However, while neither are classics, Twin has many high points not even remotely matched by the mess of a tale that sat so unfortunately sandwiched between The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks.  Ah Timelash

“Possibly my favourite part of the story comes near the end where Mykros asks Vensa to “try not to be so pessimistic”.  Really?  She’s read the script… “

It’s truly bloody wretched is Timelash.  For a testing exploration of the show’s reputation, there really are few better Doctors or serials.

#7 – “I always leave these things to the last moment”

A dark and layered exploration of  legacy and effect7

The Seventh Doctor struggled long and hard to break the Sixth Doctor’s legacy. After the close of the Classic Series, The New Adventures had a lot of fun with that one.  If only idealistic crusader and script editor Andrew Cartmel and co had realised that they just needed to swap this Doctor’s light coat for dark earlier…  Introduced  in Ian Brigg’s Dragonfire, the serial with THAT cliff-hanging cliff-hanger, Ace somehow fought through the ice to become a fan favourite. She was also the catalyst that allowed late 1980s Doctor Who to lay many a strand for the New Series to pick up.

Briggs returned to his companion creation in 1989’s The Curse of Fenric, a brilliant, dark and layered exploration of legacy and effect.  That, Ghostlight and Survival, form not only the close of Season 26 but also a loose Ace trilogy; picking up her story in the present day, in her childhood and before her birth.  Written by three of the latter years’ most diverse writers, those adventures illustrate exactly why the show shouldn’t have been cancelled, while also highlighting why it had to be for its own good after an astonishing 26 years:

“Unfortunately, the rot had set in long before and the scripts of Ian Briggs, Marc Platt and Rona Munro among others, under the editorship of Andrew Cartmel, could never shout loud enough. After an unfortunately prolonged period of entropy, Doctor Who wasn’t the fittest show on the box anymore. Those who wielded the axe were those who ripped the rug from the console room floor. Inevitable in a show with such a long shelf life, those in charge had increasingly become separated from it and its glory days.”

#8 – “In the Fight for the Survival, there are no Rules”

Not so much a fight for survival as a fight for a proper death.8

I still remember the May Bank holiday seven years after the classic show ended; when a new Doctor stepped out of the Radio Times and into a CGI-sporting American adventure. It was brilliant at the time, despite some traditional BBC release issues (the video delayed to just before premiere, anyone?). Subsequent years have not been kind, bar one crucial aspect: the breathlessly brilliant Paul McGann.  A definite highlight of the anniversary year was his surprise return. Always an awkward the pivot point between the classic 26 years and the new series, this underdeveloped Doctor was pitch perfect to fuel a crucial plot revelation in the middle of the Great Time War, leading to the essence of the new series. It’s just a travesty it took 17 years to happen. Not so much a fight for survival as a fight for a proper death:

“the Eighth is not the only Doctor who could have done with more time.  Most, if not all of them could actually.  There are those who should have stayed longer – Troughton, Davison and now Smith.  Then there are those who didn’t have the chance.  It’s a shame for McCoy and Colin Baker but for McGann, it’s a tragedy.”

New Whovember!

So, as a sequel, a month before the new series returns, what does New Whovember have in store…

Again, the remit is took look for different spins and arcs in a single Doctor’s adventure.

  • The restricted Ninth Doctor run will take the Doctor’s scrapes with the little appreciated Slitheen, from 10 Downing Street to Cardiff…
  • Fittingly for the 10th, an expansive run through the historical, with celebrity cameos or not bringing Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and of course Queen Elizabeth I along for the ride…
  • And for the late lamented Eleventh Doctor a tricky play through the most complicated and interwoven era of Who yet.  It’s difficult not to touch on River Song , but what about the Silents over the Silence.  Fittingly felt by their presence and absence, there must be a route through that…

Stay tuned for the results of New Whovember…


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