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Written By:

Paul Mount

Broadcast from September 1977 in the UK, Season 15 of Doctor Who arrived just as the Star Wars phenomenon was sweeping the world. Doctor Who, cheap and quaint by comparison, began to look a little old-fashioned and a tiny bit embarrassing for the new breed of sophisticated big-screen sci-fi fans. A recession-squeezed budget didn’t help Doctor Who’s cause. Neither did the fact that its imaginative and determined producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, had been ousted from his position in the wake of continued lobbying from TV clean-up campaigners who felt that the teatime sci-fi staple was becoming a little too big for its boots and a little bit too mature for its apparently-intended junior audience. Hinchcliffe was replaced by the less contentious Graham Williams, whose three-season run, beginning with Season 15, saw the show lose its more mature edge as star Tom Baker began to exert more control over his portrayal of the character, introducing more wide-eyed juvenile humour to what was becoming a more child-friendly version of his previously dark and unknowable Time Lord.

Season 15 makes its debut as the latest in the BBC’s Blu-ray collection, and whilst it’s clearly a show fighting its lack of funds and in a period of creative transition, it stands the test of time better than we might have expected. Three of the serials are minor Doctor Who classics, and the others are well-intentioned, noble near misses. Season opener Horror of Fang Rock by veteran writer/script editor Terrance Dicks is very much a hangover from the Hinchcliffe era. Baker delivers probably his last great, brooding performance as the Doctor and his companion Leela (Louise Jameson) materialise on Fang Rock island, where a lonely lighthouse is about to become besieged by an unearthly visitor from deep space. Gritty and atmospheric, Fang Rock, recorded at BBC Pebble Mill in Birmingham due to lack of available studio space in TV Centre in London, is a wonderful chamber piece dripping in danger and menace, buoyed up by rich performances from a game cast of 1970s British TV character actors including Colin Douglas, Alan Rowe, and Ralph Watson. The original four-part version is still available on the new collection but there’s also an updated edition with new CGI effects, which generally work quite well although the ‘new’ Rutan monster in Part Four loses some of its effectiveness by replacing the original fuzzy amorphous blob with something a bit more generically tentacular. Story three Image of the Fendahl is an eerie Quatermass-flavoured tale of an evil from the dawn of Time being awakened at a research facility deep in the English countryside. Story four, Robert Holmes’ The Sun Makers, is a witty and well-written commentary on capitalism (crafted by Holmes in response to a particularly bruising tax demand) let down only slightly by very obvious budgetary limitations. The three remaining serials are patchy at best. The Invisible Enemy is an ambitious space opera way beyond the show’s finances. It remains notable mainly for introducing robot dog K9 into the show’s mythology. Underworld is a genuinely boring four-parter scuppered by the decision to mount much of its action on model cave sets utilising crude and unconvincing early green screen techniques (or Colour Separation Overlay as it was known at the time). The season finale (as it wasn’t called back then) sees the Doctor apparently in league with hostile aliens intent on taking over the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey. Written on the hoof by Graham Williams, Invasion of Time is sloppy and random and remains most noteworthy for its memorable fourth-episode cliffhanger, which reveals that – spoiler alert – the Doctor’s old enemies, the potato-headed Sontarans, have been working behind the scenes all along.

Season 15 may well be a season of two halves but, as ever, the show has been done proud by its special features. There’s plenty of content ported over from previous DVD releases of the stories, but the highlights here are a slew of new documentaries specially made for this release. The highlight is, obviously, a wonderful ninety-odd minute retrospective on the life and times of Graham Williams, an ambitious but ultimately frustrated talent who did his best to bring 26 episodes of Doctor Who to the screen for three years but who, despite a long and productive career, never achieved his full potential within the industry. His family, friends, and colleagues contribute to Chris Chapman’s thoughtful piece, and for those who may only be vaguely aware of the twists and turns of his life post-Who, his story ends with a gut punch that will and should surprise many. Elsewhere there’s a lively new ‘making of’ for Fang Rock where superfan Toby Hadoke takes Louise Jameson to a real lighthouse (a luxury never afforded to the serial itself), a long and absorbing Matthew Sweet interview with the vivacious Jameson, who reflects on her long career and, of course, her relatively brief stint as the Doctor’s ‘savage’ sidekick Leela, more glorious interview snippets from Tom Baker and the usual ‘behind the sofa’ features for every episode where various Who alumni watch the episodes and try to make sense of them.

Season 15 sees Doctor Who starting its struggle to stay relevant as its genre grows up around it, and it’s perhaps unfortunate that the BBC imposed so much change upon it at a time when it really needed consolidation of its strengths rather than being slightly watered down in an attempt at pandering to tiresome criticism. But hindsight remains a wonderful thing and buffed up and looking good on Blu-Ray and supported by an extravagance of new and archive content, it’s a season that manages to punch above its weight despite its weaknesses and its reputation, and it’s a welcome and valuable addition to the growing archive of Doctor Who on Blu-ray.


 Doctor Who The Collection Season 15 is available on BBC Blu-ray now.

Paul Mount

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