One of the reasons so many Doctor Who fans remember the Fourth Doctor’s era fondly is seasons like this one. S13 was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, borrowing plot elements from classic SF and even more from horror, a trend that runs through Image of the Fendahl a couple of seasons later. It’s surprisingly grim at times: A character in Seeds of Doom dies in a giant composting machine (not as funny as it sounds). In Pyramids of Mars the Doctor shows Sarah what the present will look like if they give up fighting the alien Sutekh and just go home: a dead, lifeless Earth of ash and dust (one of the series’ best scenes).
The series kicks off with Terror of the Zygons, a well-exected Invasion of the Bodysnatchers thriller. The alien Zygons are scheming in the vicinity of Loch Ness; said scheme involves replacing humans with Zygon infiltrators. That’s a stock set-up (it could as easily have been The Faceless Ones from the Hartnell era) but it’s effectively executed, and the Zygons are bizarre-looking enough to be memorable.
Planet of Evil surprised me because I’d confused it with Leela’s debut (coming up next season), Face of Evil. The Doctor and Sarah (and having them off on their own away from UNIT and Harry shows what a good team they were) arrive on Zeta Minor, the planet at the far edge of the universe (the jungle sets are surprisingly effective). Unfortunately it’s actually on the border of this universe and an anti-matter one; a mining expedition tampering with anti-matter rocks is unleashing very unpleasant consequences and a lot of deaths. Where Zygons was an alien invasion story, this one is pure SF horror, much of it taking place in small spaces.
Pyramids of Mars is a classic. Returning from Zeta Minor, the TARDIS lands at UNIT HQ back when it was a mansion. Scarman, the Egyptologist who owns it is now under the spell of Sutekh, the alien Osirian who provided the Egyptians with the model for Set. Scarman is working to free his master (an army of robot mummies helps), at which point Sutekh will destroy Earth and as much of the rest of the universe as he can find ( “Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness — I find that good.”). As noted above, we get to see what happens if the Doctor doesn’t win, and it looks very much as if he won’t.
The Android Invasion is another alien infiltrator story, though that doesn’t become obvious immediately. The Doctor and Sarah return to Earth but the village they arrive seems a little off, and a little sinister. It turns out to be a mock-up rehearsing alien androids to pass as human, with the real invasion to follow. This one works better than it could have, but it has some big flaws (why does the deadly virus intended to wipe out humanity only kill one person?).
Back to horror with The Brain of Morbius; the Doctor and Sarah land on a creepy planet, seek shelter from a storm in an isolated mansion and discover Solon (Philip Madoc), a mad scientist cast out from the scientific community for his transplant experiments. What they’ve also found, though they don’t know it yet, is the Time Lord Morbius, now reduced to a brain in a life-support tank as the Frankensteinian Solon prepares him a body from the planet’s occasional visitors. It’s effective and spooky but suffers badly from disability cliches, and peters out at the end (it’s a classic horror finish, but it didn’t quite work for me).
We wrap up with Seeds of Doom, in which scientists discover the eponymous pods of the alien Krynoid, a sentient plant that devours animal life. And wouldn’t you know it, the pods fall into the hands of Chase, a millionaire botanist who’s way more interested in studying the ET plant than worrying about whether it will end all animal life on Earth. Tony Beckley as Chase is a delight, managing to make even his rants about bonsai (the sadistic practice of mutilating innocent plants for human pleasure!) sound natural; when he sides with the Krynoid against humanity, it’s not at all surprising. The rest of the guest cast works just as well. The only drawback is that again, the ending is flat, with UNIT defeating the Krynoid through brute force rather than any sort of cleverness (a Doctor Who story needs a better end than blowing shit up real good).
It was a real pleasure to watch this season again. #SFWApro, all rights to image remain with current holder.