After its unceremonious cancellation in 1985, followed by months of appeals from fans, Doctor Who made a triumphant return to TV screens a mere 18 months later. The resulting Season 23 was a trial both on screen and off, and despite lower ratings, the BBC decided that rather than risk another cancellation crisis, the show would regenerate once again, losing both script editor Eric Saward and incumbent Doctor, Colin Baker. Unfortunately, Season 24 was not the shot in the arm Doctor Who needed. Even with the wonderfully eccentric Sylvester McCoy in the leading role, and the fresh outlook of Andrew Cartmel as script editor, the season was rushed into production to meet an Autumn 1987 broadcast and a generally unfavourable response from fans and general audiences alike. If the 1985 cancellation was a bad omen, the reception to Season 24 sounded the death knoll for Doctor Who – in its current form, at least. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and with the release of Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 24 on Blu-ray, I think it’s an ideal time to revisit this fascinating season from one of the most turbulent times in the show’s history.
Time and the Rani is by no means a fan-favourite, and it’s easy to see why. The story is nonsensical, the production values are awful, the performances feel entirely misjudged and the only thing that just about works are the visual effects – and if the best thing you can say about a Doctor Who story is that the effects are good, it’s a sure sign that something has gone terribly wrong. This needed to be a really strong season opener to get viewers back on board with the show, and instead the final production is littered with all the worst Who tropes: confined to bad sets and a generic quarry, with jokes that fall flat and a script without a proper story. Key plot details are glossed over, others seem utterly ridiculous (like the Rani disguising herself as Mel), and while the Tetraps are both freaky and adorable, the Lakertyans are a poorly-realised supporting cast of thespians running around in silly outfits with nothing to contribute. Even Keff McCulloch‘s score feels tacky and unsuitable.
Having said all of that, Time and the Rani isn’t a complete disaster. Kate O’Mara is clearly having a lot of fun as the panto-esque Rani, while McCoy displays his talents in physical comedy and wordplay – even if this is all his Doctor has to offer in the story. The new title sequence is excellent for the time, and there are some potentially interesting ideas buried somewhere underneath the mess. I can certainly see why some fans find Time and the Rani to be a guilty pleasure, and perhaps one day I’ll be able to switch my brain off and have some fun with it, but it’s definitely not my cup of tea.
Paradise Towers is definitely a step-up from the season opener; filled with ingenious ideas from Stephen Wyatt (who later wrote The Greatest Show in the Galaxy), the story acts as a nice homage to J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, albeit with a go-for-broke baddie performance from Richard Briers, cannibalistic old ladies and a yellow robot crab in a swimming pool. Wyatt’s script is filled with some terrific lines of dialogue as well, but alas a lot of this doesn’t translate very well into the final production, which seems completely oblivious to the wonderful macabre humour in the script – much like director Nicholas Mallet‘s previous serial The Mysterious Planet (AKA: Parts One to Four of The Trial of a Time Lord).
Delta and the Bannermen is a very bizarre follow-up from Paradise Towers. The concept of a group of aliens ecstatic about visiting a Welsh holiday camp feels like a very Russell T Davies idea, and it’s hard not see how much companion potential Sarah Griffith‘s Ray had, but the characters are paper thin, the tone is all over the place, and the it seems like the script could have done with another couple of drafts. If this story had been tackled by the production team a few years later, I think they could have made something a lot better, but what’s here feels a bit dull.
The season concludes in Dragonfire, a key turning point in the 7th Doctor’s tenure that pushes the show into a better direction but fails to offer up anything interesting in its own right. By this time, Sylvester McCoy seems to be warming into the role, and the introduction of Sophie Aldred‘s Ace starts one of the best Doctor/companion dynamics in the show’s history. Alas, Mel never managed to feel like a proper character in the show; she was given no proper introduction, no backstory and no character development, and thus her exit here feels less like a natural end to her story but a contractual obligation. Given better material, Bonnie Langford could have done something with the character – and I believe Big Finish have gone some way as to rectifying this mistake. As a story, it’s difficult not see Dragonfire as a bit pantomime-esque, with some silly acting, rubbish dialogue and a monster that’s consistently over-lit so as to remove any and all menace. The ending is definitely a highlight: McCoy delivers the “time has flowed by” scene perfectly, while Kane’s Raiders of the Lost Ark-style face-melting shot is still brilliant.
This new collection release for Season 24 sees all 14 episodes restored in high definition, thanks to Peter Crocker. Some of the original videotape recordings were used for the remaster (providing additional footage for the extended versions of every episode, as well as the documentaries), and while it’s not *technically* HD, the added resolution means that there’s less picture compression, resulting in a clearer and cleaner image than the original DVD releases. This is the best that Season 24 is ever going to look, and possibly sound as well, thanks to Mark Ayres, who provides optional 5.1 surround sound mixes on every story. The sound restoration is excellent, and the 5.1 mixes provide an extra level of immersion. The extended edits vary quite a bit as to how much new material they incorporate into the stories; Delta and the Bannermen: Part One is the longest edit, and features a brand-new TARDIS scene at the beginning, whilst Dragonfire: Part One now includes a new scene as the Doctor and Glitz investigate the ice caverns.
Here’s to the Future covers the making of Season 24, with contributions from numerous members of the cast and production team. It’s a nice overview of the season, and is filled with some great behind the scenes footage and new interviews, but quite a lot of what is covers is already part of the Last Chance Saloon documentary, made for Time and the Rani on DVD and re-issued on Disc One of the set. Holiday Camp: The Making of Delta and the Bannermen makes for a nice traditional “talking heads” documentary on the three-part serial, with some great interviews with the ensemble cast and crew. Delta‘s extras also feature a clip from contemporary programme But First This, providing an exciting glimpse behind the scenes of the story during location recording.
The Doctor’s Table: Season 24 is a nice follow-on from the Season 23 set, with Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred joined by Clive Merrison (Deputy Chief Caretaker in Paradise Towers) for fun and games revolving around each of the season’s stories. It’s a very relaxed film, and the four actors have terrific chemistry with one another. Matthew Sweet In Conversation with Sylvester McCoy offers a unique insight into the actor’s incredibly varied career, from stuffing ferrets down his trousers to his adventures in space and time. The new series of Behind the Sofa features three sets of commentators: Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred; Colin Baker (Sixth Doctor) and Michael Jayston (the Valeyard); and Peter Davison (Fifth Doctor), Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa). It’s interesting to hear the different perspectives of the actors, with one group looking back on their own work, and the other two commenting based on their experiences working on the show. Colin Baker has a Cyberman shirt, Sylvester McCoy an exploding TARDIS waistcoat, and it seems that Peter Davison didn’t quite get the memo, but there’s some good laughs to be had.
Overall, Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 24 is another excellent set from the team at BBC Studios. These four stories may not represent the best of Who’s near-sixty year history, but they signify a turning point in the show towards something quite exciting. The episodes are all very watchable, and the extended edits make for an interesting repeat viewing experience, but it’s the special features that really make this set worthwhile. Even those who didn’t like Season 24 should finish this box set with a new perspective on the run. After all, time had flowed by quite a bit since 1987…