Reviews | Written by Paul Mount 12/02/2020



Ignored and unloved by the BBC – and very possibly detested in some upper echelons – there’s little doubt that Doctor Who was on the ropes at the end of the 1980s. Boxed into a corner, Producer John Nathan-Turner, desperate to leave the show he had been working on since 1980, was tasked with pulling together another (and, as it would turn out, final) fourteen-episode run starring Sylvester McCoy as the seventh Doctor and the energetic Sophie Aldred as his ‘streetwise’ travelling companion Ace. Under the stewardship of new script editor Andrew Cartmel, the previous season had shown some flickers of a renewed creativity so hopes amongst fans might have been high for this new run. Sadly, despite the fact that it’s quite clear that Cartmel and his team were really working to turn around the show’s troubled creative fortunes, Season 26 was to run aground in a collection of clumsy, underwritten stories that all needed at least two further drafts, unacceptably hokey production values, and some hammy performances, not least from the show’s star McCoy, all too often required to display a sense of gravitas that was always some way out of reach. Buffed up on Blu-ray as part of the BBC’s ongoing ‘Collection’ releases, the final series’ faults are again laid bare for public inspection – they may look better than they’ve ever done before with new FX, sound mixes, and upgraded picture and sound but there’s really only so much that anyone can do with a pig’s ear.

Season 26 has its admirers amongst the hardcore, but it’s really very thin gruel indeed. There’s a kernel of a decent story buried in every adventure but the scripts – all the work of TV newcomers at the time – can’t help but display their authors’ inexperience and are peppered with pacing issues, plot holes, poor characterisation, and some badly-developed ideas. Ben Aaronovitch is now a rightfully acclaimed and successful novelist, whose Rivers of London series is a joy, but his season opener Battlefield is a shonky mess packed full of dreary Arthurian mumbo-jumbo that even a welcome return by classic series legend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) can’t redeem. Marc Platt’s Ghost Light in a handsome BBC period production but the story disappears up itself and the highly-regarded Curse of Fenric clearly suffers from savage editing and the silly finger-waggling Haemovore vampires are amongst the series’ least accomplished monsters. The season – and, indeed, the series – comes to an end in the edgy and atmospheric Survival, the only story in the series that really bears repeat viewing; it’s a stifling and unusually sensuous and savage story (despite its cats-on-horseback antagonists), which allows Aldred to give her best performance and 1980s recurring bad guy the Master (Anthony Ainley) to deliver a rather more nuanced portrayal of the Doctor’s most persistent enemy. It’s all a rather sad and ignominious end to the ‘classic’ series, which had by now fallen so far from its glory days in the 1970s that it’s often hard to believe it’s the same series at all.

Yet again, the ‘raison de purchase’ of these new Blu-ray sets is the slew of new special features commissioned to complement the acres of material ported over from the earlier DVD releases. The absolute highlight here is ‘The Showman’, a fascinating and often raw eighty-minute documentary looking at the life of John Nathan-Turner, so often dubbed ‘the man who killed Doctor Who’ when it’s become quite clear that without him at the tiller as the show fell out of favour at the BBC, it would have been culled a good five years earlier. Nathan-Turner’s story is truly tragic, one of the BBC’s ‘bright young things’ locked into making a show he wanted to leave behind (and that he should have left behind after the successful 20th anniversary celebrations in 1983) as the BBC lost interest in both him and the series that they felt only he could manage to bring to the screen. He was treated appallingly as his time at the BBC came to an end and his sad decline until his death in 2002 is genuinely upsetting and handled with great delicacy and sensitivity in this remarkable documentary. Elsewhere, Matthew Sweet chats to Sophie Aldred for over an hour, Cartmel and his writers meet in a pub to chew over the bones of the season and an assortment of Who luminaries past and present discuss the finer points of the episodes in the familiar ‘Behind the Sofa’ features. There’s also a lengthy ‘making of’ for Curse of Fenric, which sees McCoy, Aldred, and guest star Tomek Bork revisit the story’s locations and also features a poignant final appearance from Nicholas Parsons, who passed away just as the set was released.

Fans of Doctor Who’s dying days will delight in seeing this final season on Blu-ray but for those exasperated at being reminded how the original series fizzled out so ignominiously this is really only worth buying for the sake of completism and, especially, for the thoughtful new special features.

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