All Change? ‘Doctor Who’ Season 21 at 35

❉ Revisiting Peter Davison’s last season as Doctor Who, which debuted on this day in 1984.

The twenty-first series of Doctor Who which began in January 1984 felt like a breathe of fresh air at the time. We had the return of proper monsters, we had action scenes, explosions, deaths, excitement and The Twin Dilemma. We were promised a series that would by its end look very different to how it began, a total cast change. I am hard pressed to think of a recent season which ended with a completely different team to the one it started with and still had four more episodes to go.

That is one of the attractions of the programme. It had the potential to change, whenever it needed to. The idea of this total change was quite exciting, although I still remember being bewildered by the press photos of the new Doctor with his ridiculous outfit, plus rumours that the police box image of the TARDIS was going to be ditched in favour of something modern. This would be different. Exciting, or heretical, etc, it would still be Doctor Who. There was still a future, but it felt that the BBC was in a hurry to get there at the expense of what we still had to see.

The previous season felt quite sedate at times, running up and down a hill was probably the most exciting thing that happened in Mawdryn Undead (unless the return of the Brigadier or that gorgeous clip fest in part two rocked your warp ship). The monsters, what there were of them, did not seem to be terribly monstrous. They seldom matched up to the creatures which populated the covers of my Target novelisations. There were some absorbing and haunting stories like Enlightenment, but this young chap found Snakedance or Terminus one hell of a struggle.

A month had barely gone by since we were spoiled by the twentieth anniversary celebrations, commemorated by the BBC in its own way. The week itself had various clip fests courtesy of Blue Peter (monsters!) and Pebble Mill (Mary Tamm!). We had The Five Doctors special (exploding monsters!) going out on the twenty-fifth of November rather than the twenty-third which did not go unnoticed by the fans. Perhaps it was a portent for the future…

The days of the week to which the series had now been regulated came as a surprise – Thursday and Friday… Not the most exciting nights of the week. Thursdays were usually associated with Top of the Pops or Tomorrow’s World, and Fridays were a sort of free for all. Fashionable teenagers were going out.

The other surprise was how the Radio Times barely mentioned its’ return. A picture of Ingrid Pitt hugging a control panel if I remember correctly. Worse, the listings did not even bother with a write up, not even the now traditional ‘question teaser’ which were never that exciting in the first place but at least it was something… I used to enjoy looking at the cast list and seeing the name of characters for the first time, as it would give you some idea of what sort of story to expect. I particularly looked forward to seeing the no doubt vegetable monster the Plant-agent in Frontios. Plantagenet? Hang on, what do you mean that’s the name of the old kings of England?

To be fair, the Radio Times had issued a glorious twentieth anniversary special edition, packed full of spoilers for the new season! Spoliers tend to send delicate types into therapy these days and demands of instant retribution but I did not mind at all. We were informed of the returning monsters, including Davros and the Master. We even got to see what the Malus looks like. We discovered when the Doctors were going to hand over and the order of departure of Tegan and Turlough and when to expect the introduction of Peri.

Season twenty one was all about war: cold wars, civil wars, siege wars, religious wars, capitalistic wars, and Mestor wanted to shoot his eggs across the galaxy like some kind of space stud. The body counts at the end of some stories were extremely high, enough to repel Tegan so much she could no longer go on travelling with the Doctor, who in the end gets caught up in a conflict not of his making or reconciling, and it costs him his life to save Peri.

Wars were shown to be unpleasant, which seems to bother some modern commentators who may be unaware that there seemed to be nothing but conflict being reported in the news at the time, whether it was social strife in England or the usual hell in the Middle East. The Falklands conflict was still in people’s minds, good or ill. And let us not forget the cold war was still casting its apocalyptic shadow over the world. We as a nation now far away from past wartimes, except for what we see on the news. In 1984, world war three was still a possibility, but things were about to change.

The Caves of Androzani is still held to be one of the greats, but when I watched it back in the day its greatness somewhat passed me by. Sure it was enjoyable enough, and it had that feeling of doom and gloom I usually associated with Eric Saward whenever he would write a script, but it never stood out. Had you asked, Resurrection of the Daleks would have got my vote for the best story that year. I remember being left breathless at the end of it by the action of it all. Oh, it’s only your favourite because Daleks, Davros, etc… Well, yes!

I have never been one of Eric Saward’s critics. It is perhaps a coincidence that the most theatrical John Nathan-Turner pushed Doctor Who, the more un-naturalistic the dialogue became, and apparently on purpose for it is the language of science fiction futures. Blake’s 7 was full of it. This approach was becoming out of date. ITV launched The Bill this year, a police series with a difference, it was perhaps the most naturalistic series I had seen up to that point. Other dramas followed suit. These days naturalism dominates the field and melodrama is seldom to be seen in a modern Doctor Who. Sure, there are examples of clunky dialogue and I certainly winced my way through the first episode of Planet of Fire the last time I watched it, and not because of the awful amount of skin we get to see, from everyone! But it does get better.

During the week Peter Davison bowed out it felt again that the BBC were racing to get rid of the fifth Doctor and launch into new, colourful territories. I may be mis-remembering but Blue Peter and other outlets were promoting The Twin Dilemma rather than saying farewell to Doctor number five. Look at that smug face right at the end of the story. Who does he think he is? My wife actively took against his Doctor on the grounds that he was rude to Peri in that final scene. I never had the heart to let her watch The Twin Dilemma

It was a pity that he left when he did. Davison seemed to be getting the writing he deserved, and he sparkled through-out the season, especially in Frontios, but was it me or was he getting grumpier as it went along? The mood definitely changed in Planet of Fire and his sense of humour seemed to drain away without Tegan to spar with. Poor Turlough, you got the impression the Doctor couldn’t wait to get shot of him. Considering how well he took what happened to the TARDIS in Frontios it did raise an eyebrow.

By the end of the series we had a new Doctor – bright, brash, colourful, mood swings, confident and impulsive. He was the perfect Doctor for an adolescent teenager. He was different. It was not an experiment, it was something new, and a long running programme like Doctor Who needed to challenge itself and go into new directions, even if we were not quite sure of the direction it would take us in. That within a year of season twenty one the programme would be threatened with cancellation would have surprised many of us had we but known. But times were changing, political climates and fashions.

No programme has the right to immortality. Not even your favourite… Season 21 was the last time we could confidently expect another series same time next year. After that, it was – sighs – The Tripods…

The stories that comprise ‘Doctor Who’ Season 21 can be found on DVD from the usual online retail outlets, and most (but not all) can be streamed from Amazon Video and iTunes. Special Editions of ‘The Caves of Androzani’ and ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ can be found in the DVD box sets Doctor Who – Revisitations Volume 1 and Doctor Who – Revisitations Volume 2, respectively. 

❉ Writer Michael Seely is a regular contributor to We Are Cult, and is the author of acclaimed biographies of director Douglas Camfield and Cyberman creator, scientist Kit Pedler, as well as Prophets of Doom: The Unauthorised History of Doomwatch.

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