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“I Deny This Reality”: On the Broken Reality of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ “Doctor Who”….

The fourteenth season of the classic Doctor Who was recently released on blu ray. In an unprecedented movie, there is a reissue of the blu ray box set coming in July. With the twelfth and fourteenth seasons available on blu ray, the bulk of the era overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe has been packaged on the latest home media format. As such, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the era, and its subtext – which is eerily resonant on contemporary rewatch.

For an entire generation, Tom Baker will always be the star of Doctor Who. There is a reason, after all, why Baker was the only previous lead actor to get a major role in The Day of the Doctor, as opposed to being shunted off into specials or shorts or other supplemental material. There’s a number of reasons for this. Part of it is simple math, with Baker spending more time in the role than any other actors. Part of it is simply that Baker’s performance is iconic. Part of it is that Baker was the actor who tended to be featured on airings of the show on PBS in the United States.

However, there’s also the simple fact that Tom Baker had a pretty good run – at least at first. While there are certainly defenders of Baker’s final four seasons in the role, Baker’s first three years headlining Doctor Who count among the most consistently satisfying periods in the history of the show. From his admittedly rough around the edges introduction in Robot to his third season finale in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a remarkable consistency to Doctor Who. Arguably it is the longest such period of consistency until Peter Capaldi was cast nearly four decades later.

These three seasons were overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Hinchcliffe and Holmes were lucky to be inheriting the show from a successful pairing of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, which gave them a solid springboard from which they might launch themselves. Hinchcliffe and Holmes immediately veered the show towards horror, with stories like The Ark in Space or The Sontaran Experiment. It was a radical departure from the action adventure that defined the previous era, but was just what the show needed.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes codified a certain aesthetic of Doctor Who. Indeed, within the revival, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that any historical episode is going to play like an homage to their work, with examples like The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw coming to mind. This was the era that attracted the ire of Mary Whitehouse, who famously described it as “teatime brutality for tots.” It codified the idea of watching Doctor Who from “behind the sofa.” When writer Peter Harness was commissioned to write Kill the Moon, he was directed to “Hinchcliffe the sh!t” out of the first half.

Rewatching these stories today, it’s interesting how much they resonate and how much the horror at their core still works. This era of Doctor Who has its fair share of iconic monsters like the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, but a lot of the horror is abstract. The Hinchcliffe era is firmly anchored in classic horror stories, with Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius most overtly evoking Hammer Horror and stories like Planet of Evil drawing from stories like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but its horror is more existential than that.

The Hinchcliffe era is preoccupied with the notion of long-dormant threats resurfacing and threatening the established order of the universe, long-vanquished foes reviving themselves and causing existential crises. More than that, these three seasons are particularly preoccupied with the anxiety about a fracturing and warping reality, in a way that feels strangely prescient and probably resonates even more strongly these days than it did on original broadcast.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Terror of the Zygons originally aired in 1975.

Right, let’s see what other damage we can do. Anybody know what this is?

I haven’t the faintest idea.

You tell us.

I will. It’s a self-destructor, and it works like this.

– the Doctor demonstrates to the Duke and Lamont that you don’t ask a question without knowing the answer

Terror of the Zygons is a strange beast. Tom Baker’s first season was bookended by two relics from the Jon Pertwee era. Robot was essentially a Pertwee-era invasion story where the only real difference was Tom Baker’s larger-than-life performance; Revenge of the Cybermen had been commissioned by Barry Letts and felt more like a Pertwee-era space story than anything Hinchcliffe and Holmes would produce.

In contrast, Terror of the Zygons is very definitely an episode of Doctor Who produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes. It kicks off one of the show’s strongest seasons, and plays into many of the recurring themes of the era. There are fallen gods and body horror and a sense of the Doctor as a bohemian who won’t be bound by society’s rule. And yet, at the same time, there’s also a sense that Terror of the Zygons is derived from the same basic structure of Pertwee-era invasion story.

In short, Terror of the Zygons feels like it straddles two very different eras of the show, and provides an opportunity for the show to very definitely transform from one form into another.

Let Zygons be Zygons...

Let Zygons be Zygons…

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Doctor Who: Hide (Review)

Say we actually find her. What do we say to her?

We ask her what she is, how she came to be.

Why?

Because I don’t know and ignorance is… what’s the opposite of bliss?

Carlisle.

Yes, Carlyle. Ignorance is Carlyle.

– the Doctor and Clara

Hide is the best episode of Doctor Who to air since The God Complex, almost two years ago. Writing an affectionate tribute to gothic horror Doctor Who, Hide allows even the most skeptical member of the audience to forgive writer Neil Cross for his somewhat clunky script for The Rings of Akhaten. It’s a nostalgic and atmospheric trip back in time, and a reminder of just exactly what this show is capable of, offering a creepy haunted house horror that manages to morph into an epic love story by the time the credits have rolled.

What lies beyond?

What lies beyond?

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Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Seeds of Doom originally aired in 1976.

Very impressive. What do you do for an encore, Doctor?

I win.

– Chase and the Doctor

“The mixture of styles is charming,” Miss Ducat notes of Harrison Chase’s impression mansion, and it’s also true of the story itself. I think that part of the reason that The Seeds of Doom works so well is because it’s actually a rather wonderful blend of any number of pulp subgenres, mixing a spy adventure, a trashy sci-fi adventure, an end-of-the-world catastrophe story, a gothic horror tale and an alien invasion saga, all within one six-part story. The story’s meglomaniac, Harrison Chase, might believe hybrids are “a crime against nature” (which opens up all sorts of avenues of plant racism), but I think this works quite well.

Hamilton Chase goes green…

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Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Brain of Morbius originally aired in 1976.

How did you get her here, by the way?

The power of the Sisterhood.

Really? What, you mean you still practise teleportation? How quaint. Now, if you got yourself a decent forklift truck–

Doctor, you have but a little time left. Will you waste it prattling nonsense or confess your guilt.

What do you mean, I have but a little time left?

Before you die.

But I’m only seven hundred and forty nine. Life doesn’t begin until seven hundred and —

At the next sun. That is agreed.

Not by me, it isn’t. I haven’t even been consulted.

– The Doctor, Ohica and Maren are clear on a few things

The Brain of Morbius continues the trend of phenomenally strong episodes in Baker’s sophomore season. Barring The Android Invasion, it’s a fairly stellar run of adventures, and I think that it’s these stories that a lot of people (casual follower and hardened fanatic alike) think of when they remember Tom Baker’s celebrated tenure in the role. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe continues his “gothic adventures… in space!” trend from Planet of Evil, this time offering a futuristic take on a Hammer-Horror-style Frankenstein. And the results are as fun, as wonderful and as grotesque as you might have imagined.

They did the monster mash…

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Android Invasion originally aired in 1975.

Is that finger loaded?

– the Doctor

We’re in the middle of one hell of a season here, aren’t we? Indeed, The Android Invasion is sandwiched between two stories that could legitimately vie for the title of “best Doctor Who story ever.” Perhaps that’s why it feels like such a let-down. The Android Invasion isn’t the worst Doctor Who story ever. Indeed, it isn’t the worst Tom Baker Doctor Who story ever, nor is it the worst Philip Hinchcliffe Doctor Who story ever. It is just sort of… there. It’s a very dull and mundane piece of television, one that feels all the more dull and mundane for the fact that it’s positioned in one of the strongest seasons that the show ever produced.

He needs a Doctor...

He needs a Doctor…

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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Pyramids of Mars originally aired in 1975.

Yes, that’s resonating tuner. Part of an anti-gravity drive. Oh! They must be building a rocket.

Egyptian mummies building rockets? That’s crazy.

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane demonstrate how arbitrary “crazy” is on this show

Pyramids of Mars is a classic slice of Doctor Who. It’s a piece of television that I dearly love, even if it is quite clear watching it that Robert Holmes was re-writing it by the seat of his pants. It’s got all the right ingredients for the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show. Tom Baker is on phenomenal form. Sarah Jane has full adapted to being the only companion again. There’s one of those nice period settings that the BBC does so well. There’s an ancient evil arising to destroy the planet, and maybe the universe. Said evil is deliciously hammy, yet somehow quite intimidating.

Pyramids of Mars is the perfect storm, a carefully mixed cocktail of Doctor Who in the Hinchcliffe era. Given that the Hinchcliffe era is generally regarded as one of the best periods in the show’s history, that should give an idea of just how impressive it is.

Because "Sutekh the Benign" doesn't sound quite so threatening...

Because “Sutekh the Benign” doesn’t sound quite so threatening…

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Doctor Who: Planet of Evil (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Planet of Evil originally aired in 1975.

He used the neutron accelerator. If he hit Sorenson, it could be disastrous.

You mean things can get worse? I don’t believe it.

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane make sure we understand the stakes

I feel a bit sorry for Planet of Evil. I mean, it sits near the start of one of the best seasons of Doctor Who, and yet it’s generally overlooked. It’s not that Planet of Evil is bad – The Android Invasion from the same season is actually bad, and is remembered as such. It’s more that Planet of Evil doesn’t really feel as exceptional as it could be. The Hinchcliffe and Holmes era of Doctor Who was cranking out classic adventures and iconic images to beat the band, but Planet of Evil just wound up feeling relatively generic. That’s not necessarily entirely fair. The opening two episodes of Planet of Evil are superb, but it is let down by a fairly average conclusion and undermined by a fairly weak supporting cast.

It is nowhere near the best story of the season, but it’s hardly a spectacular failure. there are times in the history of Doctor Who where Planet of Evil would be a welcome relief. However, it suffers from being a reasonably mediocre adventure in a fantastic season.

In the jungle, the peaceful jungle...

In the jungle, the peaceful jungle…

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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Arc in Space originally aired in 1975.

I’ll have to link in my own cerebral cortex. That’s the only thing.

That is highly dangerous.

I know. Two more leads, Rogin.

The power could burn out a living brain!

I agree. An ordinary brain. But mine is exceptional.

– the Doctor demonstrates his tremendous ego to Vira

It really is amazing how quickly Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes established their mark on Doctor Who. Barry Letts finished up his time as producer working on Tom Baker’s first serial, Robot. The Ark in Space was the second adventure to star the Fourth Doctor, and certainly a lot more indicative of the shape of things to come. While you could argue that Holmes and Hinchcliffe did improved over the following years – for one thing, this first season still has the odd pothole – it is clear that they immediately knew what they were doing.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes would cast a tremendous shadow over Doctor Who, and it’s no coincidence that so much of that influence can be traced back to The Ark in Space, the first indication of their plan for Doctor Who.

The Wirrn really bug the Doctor...

The Wirrn really bug the Doctor…

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Doctor Who: Evolution of the Daleks (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Evolution of the Daleks originally aired in 2007.

Caan, let me help you. What do you say?

Emergency temporal shift!

– sadly the Doctor doesn’t follow this with a dramatic “CAAAAAAAN!!!”

Well, that went off the rails rather quickly. Okay, to be fair, the problems here were all hinted at in the first part, with those potential obstacles only turning into gaping flaws as this two-part adventure galloped toward the finish line. And, again, Evolution of the Daleks fails because it has too much ambition, rather than a complete lack of it. Still, the episode is a mess, full of mismatched ideas and crazy concepts that really don’t work especially well within the context of a Dalek episode. It’s not too hard to imagine a lot of these elements being recycled into a working story for the show, but the main problem seems to be that none of those elements work especially well with the Daleks.

I can see it in its eye-stalk...

I can see it in its eye-stalk…

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