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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: The Hand of Fear (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 Hand of Fear originally aired in 1976.

Come on, where are we?

We’re in a quarry.

Yes, I know we’re in a quarry, but where?

Well, how do I know? I don’t know all the quarries that–

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane get a bit meta

The Hand of Fear is odd, because it’s the end of an era – but it’s not the end of the era for the rather obvious reason that it bids farewell to one of the franchise’s best-loved companion character. The Hand of Fear is best known as the final story to feature Sarah Jane Smith. Indeed, the DVD comes with a helpful sticker informing any potential purchasers of the story’s significance.

However, watching The Hand of Fear with the benefit of hindsight, it isn’t Sarah Jane’s departure that is the most striking part of the show.

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

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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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