Doctor Who, S17: Douglas Adams, Lalla Ward and a Lost Serial

Doctor Who had a pretty good Season 15 followed by the uneven Key of Time season. Both seasons boasted some great episodes such as Image of the Fendahl— and two great companions, Leela and Romana (plus introducing K9 in S15). S17 has no great serials, which may reflect Douglas Adams was the story editor.

While Adams did a great job with The Pirate Planet the previous season his quirky sense of humor doesn’t work as well here. Mary Tam’s Romana regenerating into Lalla Ward didn’t help either. Ward would work perfectly well as a cute human companion but as a Time Lady she’s way too ineffective; Tam had considerably more gravitas in her role.

The first serial, Destiny of the Daleks, opens with a comic sequence in which Romana tries several new looks before settling on Lalla Ward. This is the first indication we’ve had that Time Lords have any say in their appearance, but it’s not surprising she’s better at it than the Doctor. Then the TARDIS lands and they’re suddenly caught up in a battle between the Daleks and the Movellans, aliens (multiethnic, which was unusual in those days) who turn out to be androids. It turns out the planet is Skaro and the Daleks are there to resurrect Davros. The two alien races have stalemated each other and the Daleks hope Davros’ genius can see a strategy they’ve missed.

The problems with the serial are that the Movellans are uninteresting adversaries and David Gooderson is a poor substitute for Michael Wisher’s Davros. Nobody has ever matched Wisher’s ability to infuse Davros’ voice with both a mechanical quality and raw, fanatical rage. I’d have sooner left Davros dead, but after this he’d return in several later Dalek stories.

Adams himself wrote City of Death which is this season’s best, though I don’t like it as much as many. Julian Glover plays Scarlioni, a count who’s actually an alien fractured in multiple times. As one of his selves lives in Renaissance Italy, it’s a simple matter to have Leonardo paint multiple copies of the Mona Lisa which present-day Scarlioni can sell covertly (after stealing the one in the Louvre) to raise money for his Big and Evil Plan. It’s a solid story but a buffoonish American investigator makes a really annoying character.

In The Creature of the Pit, the TARDIS lands on a metal poor planet where people who cross the ruling noblewoman get thrown to the eponymous oozing horror. The monster, however, is not what it seems … Again, a lot of comic relief in the clueless freedom fighters here.

Nightmare of Eden has a freak space-warp accident fuse two ships together — more alarming because one of them is involved in a drug-smuggling plot. This was a mess behind the scenes — the director and cinematographer got yanked off midway through — which may explain why it’s so forgettable to watch.

Things pick up with The Horns of Nimon, a reworking of Theseus and the Minotaur The TARDIS materializes on a vessel carrying a group of royal teens as sacrifices to the mighty Skonnosian Empire; on Skonnos, they will be thrown into the labyrinth of the Nimon. The Doctor and Romana are not, of course, down with this. For the first time, Romana II shows some spine and I do like the dilemma of the Theseus analog Seth (“I’m not a prince and I didn’t set out to destroy the Nimon, that’s just a story I made up to give them hope.”). Overall it’s mediocre though, but I do love the line “Have you noticed how people’s intellectual curiosity declines the moment they start waving guns around?”The final serial of the season, Shada, never aired due to a tech strike at the BBC. Audio versions and a novelization followed and now the Beeb has used animation to complete the unfinished scenes. The Doctor and Romana are visiting the retired Time Lord Chronotis at Cambridge, where he works as a professor. The sneering villain Skagra (Andrew Sachs) is there too, seeking to pluck the location of something called “Shada” from the professor’s mind. It turns out Shada is a Time Lord prison that everyone has forgotten exists. Skagra plans to liberate one of the criminals imprisoned there as a necessary component in his plan to impose universal order.

I’m really happy to live in a world where so many lost serials have been reconstructed and this one is above average for the season though no more than that. Romana’s back to being wimpy but the humor doesn’t overpower the story. As a fan, definitely worth seeing.

I’ll be back in a few months with S18, Tom Baker’s swan song as the Time Lord.

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