Broadcast in 1971, Season 8 of Doctor Who saw some subtle refinements to the gritty new format established for third Doctor Jon Pertwee the previous year. Season 7 had adopted a more mature Quatermass-like style for its four serials but producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, not hugely comfortable with the ‘Earth exile’ scenario imposed upon the series as it entered a new decade, began to tinker with the formula in an attempt to skew it back to a more inclusive family audience. Caroline John’s brainy boffin companion Liz Shaw was out, Katy Manning’s eager, bright-eyed Jo Grant was in and the Doctor was to face a formidable and persistent new enemy in the former of rogue Time Lord the Master, played with aching urbanity by the suave Roger Delgado. The whole look of the series became brighter and more ‘comic strip’ and, significantly, one serial saw the Doctor briefly lifted out of his exile and sent by the Time Lords to sort out some rum business on an alien planet, the first signs of Letts and Dicks tugging at the narrative straitjacket of the stranded-on-Earth format.
Season 8 now arrives on a lavish eight-disc Blu-ray boxset but fans are advised not to expect the crisp, sharp visual quality of previous sets culled from much later in the series’ run. The series’ 25 episodes famously survived in the BBC Archives either as black and white prints or prints returned from overseas TV networks then converted into unsympathetic broadcast formats. Over the years, though, the episodes have been cleaned up and colour-restored by the marvels of modern digital technology and they’ve really never looked better in any other physical media release format than they do here. But there’s no denying that many episodes can’t help but look a little washed-out and grainy (although selected 5.1 mixes certainly help punch up the sound quality) and it’s a credit to all those who have worked tirelessly to scrub these episodes up that a Blu-ray set of such compromised material has been possible at all.
Season 8 is a collection of big, brash, colourful romps, the Season 7 template softened by the introduction of warmer and more intriguing regular characters (although there’s an argument to suggest that The Master, appearing in every serial, becomes a little overused). Terror the Autons sees the newly-arrived Master team up with the Nestene Consciousness (returning from the previous year’s Spearhead from Space) for a second stab at world domination and Don Houghton’s gritty, rather violent Mind of Evil is probably the closest the series sails to the style of the previous season. Claws of Axos, in which benevolent aliens arrive on Earth but turn out – surprise! – to have distinctly hostile intentions – is surely as pure comic strip style as the series had ever been to that point and the underrated six-parter Colony in Space sees the Doctor and Jo travel to the unwelcoming planet Uxarius where waits another Universe-dominating plot by the Master. The series ends with the classic The Daemons, a thrilling and atmospheric five-parter in which the show’s apparent dabbling with Black Magic and Satanism are cleverly subverted in a story involving the awakening of a long-buried ancient alien evil.
As ever with the new Blu-ray sets, the ‘special feature’ material from the original DVD releases has been augmented by a slew of terrific new documentaries (many filmed under difficult COVID restrictions) that approach the series from new and fascinating angles; with the history of the show now researched to the point of exhaustion, director Chris Chapman deftly delivers supporting material that investigates the show’s legacy from refreshingly new perspectives. Highlights here include a lengthy feature presented by comedian/superfan Frank Skinner exploring the extraordinary contribution to the series by the late script editor/writer Terrance Dicks, three veteran BBC directors (including two who worked on Season 8) revisiting many of the numerous locations and Devil’s Weekend, in which stars Katy Manning and John Levene (UNIT’s Sergeant Benton) revisit Aldbourne, the picturesque Wiltshire location made famous by The Daemons. Here they meet many locals who were there back in 1971 when the BBC came to call and their recollections are charming and evocative. Also included are a lengthy interview with Katy Manning by Matthew Sweet who teases out some extraordinary memories from the charismatic, lively actor. Some of the ropey CSO visual effects in Terror of the Autons have been updated and there are a handful of new ‘archive’ clips and the usual ‘Behind the Sofa’ features where classic series cast and new series cast (here new Master Sacha Dharwan and his partner, Sarah Jane Adventures/Doctor Who actor Anjli Mohindra) cast their critical eyes upon Season 8 from a 21st century viewpoint.
Season 8 is another triumph and, despite the adversity offered up the quality of the original archive episodic material, it’s another must-have purchase (the new features alone are irresistible) that again demonstrates the astonishing care and attention lavished upon classic Doctor Who in an era where physical media is constantly said to be heading towards obsolescence.