Doctor Who, S15: A change in tone and a little tin dog

Season 15 of DOCTOR WHO starts out with the same dark tone as the previous season. By the end, as the production team changed, we’re in lighter, more comical territory, Leela has gone (I’d remembered her being around a lot longer) and instead K9, the robot dog, has entered the TARDIS.The season kicks off with a very dark one, HORROR OF FANG ROCK (which I wrote about a while back). Instead of landing at Brighton, the TARDIS materializes near a Victorian lighthouse. A Rutan space ship has also landed nearby and is now scouting out the area to decide how easy it will be to attack and wipe out the humans. An energy-based shapeshifter, the Rutan is able to replace any member of the supporting cast — but which ones? It’s a grim, effective story in which nobody but the Doctor and Leela make it out alive. “I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead I’ve locked it in… with us!'”

THE INVISIBLE ENEMY is a good concept badly undercut by crappy effects — the boss monster is on a par with the infamous rubber snake of Kinda and the mind-controlled humans look silly too. A shame because I like the concept. An intelligent viral swarm takes over a space station with an eye to spreading and dominating all human life. With the Doctor infected the fight against the Purpose looks hopeless, but fortunately the space station scientist is able to clone the Doctor and Leela and shrink them to confront the virus on its own level.

What makes this episode really memorable is K9, the scientist’s AI robot dog (voiced to perfection by John Leeson). At the end of the episode, the Doctor winds up taking K9 along in the TARDIS. While the producers weren’t sure if they wanted to keep him around, he stayed a companion until late in S18, and has cropped up in spinoffs Sarah Jane Adventures and his own show to boot. K9 has an undeniable charm to him (and occasionally some sarcasm) but as some fans have complained, his built in ray-weapons makes it a lot easier for the Doctor to take down the bad guys. “Some of my best friends are humans. When they get together in great numbers other lifeforms sometimes suffer.” 

IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL is another grim one. The Doctor arrives near an anthropological research site where the crew are baffled by what appears to be an impossibly old human skull. The Doctor realizes the skull is the Fendahl, a monstrous entity supposedly destroyed by the Time Lords. Instead it reached Earth and has been manipulating humanity — most of what we think of as magic is the result of the Fendahl’s powers — with an eye to reconstituting itself. And it’s very close to its goal. While the gold face makeup on the Fendahl’s final form is underwhelming, this is a good one, strongly reminiscent of Quatermass and the Pit. “I have been used! My family has been used! All mankind has been used!”

THE SUN MAKERS is much more comic in tone, and not quite to my taste, though it does boast some memorable performances. The TARDIS arrives on Pluto, long after humanity has relocated there from a polluted Earth. Unfortunately the company that arranged the move and maintains the artificial suns that provide light has kept humanity in indentured servitude for generations. That, of course, is about to change … Not the series’ best satire, but not a bad one either. “I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism!”

UNDERWORLD would suffer even if it was awesome because it’s another oppressed underground planetary civilization right after the one in Sun Makers. In a riff on the legend of Jason, the TARDIS lands on a Minyan ship seeking a legendary lost colony. This is important to the Doctor because millennia earlier, the Time Lords had tried advancing Minyan technology only to watch the planet destroy itself, leading to their vow of non-intervention. So naturally, the Doctor and Leela come along with Jaxson, Herik, Orph and their crewmates. What follows never really gels, though and as the Doctor points out the enemy they ultimately face is too cliched. “You’re just a machine with delusions of grandeur — another insane object, another self-aggrandizing artifact.”

The season wraps up with the six-episode INVASION OF TIME, one where my opinion is way lower than it was on first viewing. The Doctor strikes a pact with the sinister, unseen Vardans to conquer Gallifrey, then returns and uses his authority as President (from the previous season’s The Deadly Assassin) to make it happen. Unsurprisingly it turns out the Doctor is running a scam to take down the Vardans — but then it turns out they’re just a stalking horse to get the Sontarans inside Gallifrey’s defenses.

Part of what goes wrong is that all the added areas we see in the TARDIS — corridors, swimming pool — don’t really work. For one thing it’s still a lot of time spent running through corridor;  for another everything looks like they shot it at the nearest school. The TARDIS should look more colorful than that. Another problem is that the Vardans, when we finally see them, are really, really uninteresting. And Leela’s departure is awful, leaving to marry/pair off with Andred, a Time Lord guard. While an early couple of scenes show them finding each other obnoxious and irritating (we know what that means) they hardly have any interaction after that; Leela has more chemistry with the Time Lady Rodan. It’s a hamfisted farewell and way out of character for Leela. Despite some good performances (Baker playing evil is always fun), this one’s ultimately a loser. “Where do you hide a tree? In a forest — you taught me that, Borussa.”

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