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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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Die Hard and the Rule of Escalating Threat…

Bruce Willis has started talking about Die Hard 5 (maybe that should be Die Hard 5.0, but I digress), and has suggested that the next logical step for John McClane is to save the world. Think about it. In Die Hard, he saved a building full of people – not bad, you might say. In Die Harder, he saved an entire airport and the planes in the sky – impressive, you might agree. In Die Hard With A Vengeance, he saved New York from a mad bomber – maybe a little outside of his pay grade, you’ll possible argue. In Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free and Die Hard), McClane pretty much single-handedly (because nerdy sidekicks don’t count) saved the United States of America. The remark that McClane is porbably going to save the world – while probably a bit of a joke on Willis’ part – got me thinking: is the rule of escalating threat necessarily a good thing?

More sequels, less hair...

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