DOCTOR WHO: A Companion’s Companion – Season 13
by Kyle Anderson on September 19, 2013
Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor had been a massive tonal shift toward proper sci-fi and horror and away from the overt action adventure of the Pertwee years. Evidently, this shift was a welcome one, as the 1974-1975 season had the highest ratings in ten years. The new production heads, young producer Philip Hinchcliffe and old dog script editor Robert Holmes, were committed to cranking up the scares and making the little kiddies really hide behind the proverbial sofa. With Season 13, the first year which they could fully plan out themselves, they took to adapting classic horror and science fiction literature for the Doctor Who crowd, brought in a whole batch of new villains and monsters (unlike Season 12, which only had one story without any carryover character elements), and turned the Fourth Doctor into a sort of zany Victorian occultist, though his full transformation into Victoriana would have to wait a year. This season is the Doctor and Sarah Jane at their very best, and is largely the reason why this period of the show is considered the tops by many, including myself… if not for that pesky Terry Nation story.
Season 13 – 30 August 1975 – 6 March 1976
If you’ll recall from the last installment, Season 12 was meant to end with a story that was ported over to begin Season 13. This story was Terror of the Zygons, written by a new writer to the series, Robert Banks Stewart. It ended the connected serials that began with the tail end of “Planet of the Spiders.” In the final scene of “Revenge of the Cybermen,” the Doctor says the Brigadier is urgently attempting to contact them, which is pretty impressive given that the Brig has had zero luck in getting the Doctor to do anything since “The Invasion.”
The Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry arrive at the Scottish Highlands to meet UNIT, who are there investigating the destruction of oil rigs in the North Sea. Local superstitions being what they are, it’s believed to have something to do with the Loch Ness Monster. Well, as it turns out, this is exactly right, only Nessie isn’t the monster we think she is; it’s actually a cyborg sentry controlled by the tentacle-faced Zygons, who can change shape at will to become humans and fit into Earth society. In fact, the leader of the Zygons appears to be the Duke of Forgil. This is the final story to have Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan as a companion. He’s a great character, but sadly redundant when you have Tom Baker onscreen.
This is a story that is very popular among Doctor Who fans. I’ve only just seen it the once, in a very low-res format, in ten minute chunks. The reason for this is that it has not been released on DVD yet, and it’s actually the very last completely-intact story to get a release of this nature. It’ll be out in October here in North America, at which time I will be able to talk about it with better authority. However, Zygons, despite having only appeared in this one story, have proven to be one of the most popular aliens in the whole of the show, leading to their inclusion in the upcoming 50th Anniversary special. How big a role they’ll have is still up in the air, but it’ll be cool, that’s for sure.
“Terror of the Zygons” is also the last regular appearance of Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and his last appearance at all until “Mawdryn Undead” in 1983. The Brig was such a huge part of the series for five full seasons, but the shift from Earthbound adventures to space and time jumping meant there was little need for him. In fact, his role even during the Pertwee years began to diminish steadily going from being in every story in Season 7 down to only two (save a brief appearance in a third) in Season 11. And yet, even though he wasn’t really a regular anymore, you almost can’t think of Pertwee without thinking of Courtney.
After “Zygons,” the Doctor and Sarah Jane go a-traveling in the TARDIS and quickly receive a distress call from the planet Zeta Minor. This leads them into Planet of Evil, by solid utility writer Louis Marks. The pair quickly discovers that a geological expedition has fallen prey to some unseen entity and only the leader, Sorenson, has remained alive. A military team is sent to investigate the operation and, of course, immediately assume the Doctor and Sarah Jane are behind the deaths, but it was actually the work of a creature from the antimatter universe who is taking deadly action for the team disturbing certain minerals. Sorenson becomes infected by the antimatter creature, and it mutates him into a hideous beastie called an “antiman” which can drain the life from others. The military leader is a huge nutbag who thinks exposing antiman to radiation will kill it, thought it just causes him to split into many different versions of himself. The Doctor, eventually, is able to find the original Sorenson and put an end to this terrible affair.
This is the story from Season 13 that often gets completely overlooked, and I think unfairly. In a season that produced so many great stories, the ones that are merely very good tend to get passed by. But, I think “Planet of Evil” is tops. Firstly, its sets are astounding. While filmed entirely in the studio, the alien jungle setting looks nothing short of amazing, especially in the few segments shot on film and not video. Secondly, the performances are uniformly tremendous. Frederick Jaeger as Sorenson really plays the pain of being overwhelmed by a foreign, hostile entity, and Prentis Hancock as Salamar, the military leader, is bonkers and over the top, but it totally fits the character. Finally, the story itself is very clever. Marks was brought in occasionally to write Who stories, last having penned “Day of the Daleks,” and here, in keeping with what would become the theme of the season with literary references, he does a sci-fi take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a bit of Forbidden Planet thrown in for good measure. It’s a really terrific four episodes.
After this, we get what many (though not me) consider to be the best story of the season, Pyramids of Mars. Credited to the fictitious “Stephen Harris,” the script began as a story by Lewis Greifer and was heavily rewritten by Robert Holmes. In this one, the Doctor and Sarah Jane go to England in 1911 after Sarah sees the face of a jackal-thing appearing in the TARDIS. In Egypt, an archaeologist named Marcus Scarman unearthed a chamber with the Eye of Horus on it. His assistants are scared away, but Scarman gets nearer, only to be blasted by some powerful energy. Cut to an idyllic manor house where the Doctor and Sarah Jane have landed, that just so happens to belong to Dr. Scarman. They find the butler, who tells them the house has been taken over by some mysterious Egyptian men. The men, who have mummies (really robots) with them, are the servants of an ancient and terrible deity called Sutekh.
The mummies chase the Doctor and Sarah Jane, as well as Dr. Scarman’s brother Laurence, before the Doctor learns that Sutekh wants to construct a giant Osirian missile that would destroy the world. Sarah suggests that they go forward in time, because obviously the world didn’t end in 1911. However, the Doctor shows her that if they fail to prevent Sutekh’s plan, the Earth will indeed be a barren wasteland in 1980. The Doctor eventually is forced to travel to Sutekh’s maze-and-puzzle-filled domain on Mars and confront the mad Osirian himself.
This is a classic, top to bottom. There are so many terrific and memorable things going on here. The idea of fixed versus flux points in time, and moments needing to be altered to make sure time moves the way it ought, is as interesting and troubling idea now as it was back then. Here again we have Holmes employing the trick of old horror literature and film, in this case Egyptology and The Mummy, to tell a science fiction story. The location on which they shot, which apparently belonged to Mick Jagger, is the perfect peaceful home, which is perfect for Hammer Horror-like goings on. Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen here are magical together, and there is a real sense that the two actors got on amazingly well. While maybe a little overrated, “Pyramids of Mars” is nevertheless a brilliant piece of ’70s Doctor Who.
And then we come to the story written by Terry Nation. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I think Nation is a bit of a hack who maybe has a few decent ideas but definitely isn’t as talented a writer as his Dalek-merchandising-fortune seemed to suggest. At least in this story, The Android Invasion, there aren’t any of the angry salt shakers, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a better story. Directed by former producer Barry Letts, the story follows the Doctor and Sarah Jane as they arrive, apparently, back in modern day, though they’re likely miles from London. They approach a small village in which people are acting very strange. Several men in white suits begin shooting at the pair with their fingers(!), and another man, a UNIT soldier, trance-like, walks off the side of a cliff. Clearly, things are a bit fishy.
They eventually find familiar faces, Sgt. Benton and Harry Sullivan, but they seem not to know them and even point guns and are ordered to kill the Doctor and Sarah. As it turns out, a nefarious plot is being hatched to invade Earth by a people called the Kraal. They have turned a piece of their world into a training ground for this invasion, which is where they are now, and are using androids to learn and replace. There are real people from Earth here as well, but it takes a fair bit of convincing for them to believe they aren’t really on their homeworld.
The idea behind this episode is really interesting (fake world, replica people, planned invasion, allies acting evil), but the execution is not particularly good at all. There are many dumb lapses in judgment and logic by all of the characters, especially the Doctor. Characters seem to not know things that are blatantly, painfully obvious, and others seem to know things to which they couldn’t possibly have been privy. Nation is just a lazy, lazy writer who tries to skate by on his concepts, which are, admittedly, pretty good, usually. At least he only wrote one more story after this, and that wasn’t for four more seasons. But, boy, that one’s a doozy. We’ll talk about it in a few weeks’ time.
Let’s get back to the good stuff. After “Android Invasion,” we get another story that is often looked over, usually because it’s similar to “Pyramids of Mars” in that it’s Gothic Horror done sci-fi style, but also because it treats horror, rather graphic horror for the time at that, with a slight air of black comedy, which people don’t really take to. To me, however, it’s bloody brilliance. That story is The Brain of Morbius; Originally written by Terrance Dicks, it was rewritten by Robert Holmes to the point that Dicks didn’t want his name on it anymore, telling Holmes to make up some bland pseudonym. That pseudonym was Robin Bland. The story is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the monster actually being the brains (pun intended) of the outfit.
The TARDIS lands on the planet Karn, a craggy and lightning-ridden world. The Doctor and Sarah seek shelter in a castle on a hill (always a good plan) and inside find Dr. Solon (the fantastic Philip Madoc) and his deformed manservant Condo. Solon mentions how much he appreciates the Doctor’s head, which is pretty weird, but not when you realize what Solon actually does. As many ships that pass by are forced to crash-land due to the lightning, Solon has Condo retrieve them so he can do horrible vivisections, harvesting the limbs and bodies from these unfortunate creatures. What he really needs, though, is the right head in which to insert the brain of his master, Morbius. Now, Morbius is (or was) an evil Time Lord and his brain is all that remains. Obviously, another Time Lord’s skull would work perfectly.
Elsewhere on Karn is the Sisterhood, a witchlike coven who have a secret elixir of life that allows them to live forever. They believe the Doctor has come to steal their precious, and nearly gone, elixir and refuse to believe Morbius is anything but dead. But he isn’t dead at all. In fact, his brain now sits in a jar atop the piecemeal body Solon has created, making him a staggering, lobster-clawed monster that chases Sarah Jane around. Eventually, the Doctor and Morbius must have a battle of minds, whilst Solon attempts to finally finish his greatest experiment.
This story is so frigging good. Granted, I’m a huge horror nut, and also a comedy nut, but the mixture of grim subject matter and situational comedy really, really works for me. Madoc as Solon is one of the best villains of all time, and he played The War Lord in “The War Games.” He’s a mad scientist who never really froths, but you find out just have macabre and fiendish he is when you realize he sacrificed his poor manservant’s arm for Morbius’ hideous new body. The stuff with the Sisterhood is where the story isn’t quite as strong, but it’s not untrue to the type of story it’s telling. Hammer Horror movies always had subplots that weren’t up to the level of the A story. But, if you want bubbling beakers, lightning crashes, “It’s Alive!”-style acting, and Tom Baker kicking ass, then “The Brain of Morbius” is for you.
And we finish Season 13 with my favorite story of the year, and probably my favorite Tom Baker story at all. Written by Robert Banks Stewart and directed by Douglas Camfield, the pair behind the opener “Terror of the Zygons,” The Seeds of Doom is a six-parter that is really a two-parter and a four-parter put together, but one that mixes elements from The Thing from Another World, James Bond movies, Day of the Triffids, The Quatermass Experiment, and many other aliens-invade-with-plants movies. We begin in Antarctica where a research group has uncovered mysterious seed pods. How did they get to the coldest place in the world? That’s for the Doctor and Sarah Jane to figure out. They need to hurry, though; one of the pods has infected one of the scientists, and he’s slowly beginning to turn green and mossy.
Before they’re even really able to handle this, Scorby, the henchmen of the insane horticulturalist billionaire Harrison Chase, arrives to steal the pods. He destroys the facility, along with the Krynoid (that’s what the aliens are called) creature and absconds with the remaining seed pods. The Doctor and Sarah Jane manage to escape and head back to England, where Chase’s massive compound is. He’s obsessed with plants, loves them even, and thinks that this alien species would be the prized addition to his green cathedral. The problem, of course, is that the Krynoid will continue to grow and grow until it engulfs everything, turning the whole of Earth into a massive plant, which Chase is all too happy to let happen. With the help of UNIT and certain MPs, the Doctor has to defeat Chase, and the Krynoid, before it’s too late.
As I said before, I love this story to bits. The first two episodes explore the isolation and loss-of-bodily-control ideas that come with pod movies, and the following four become a Bond villain, world-domination story that I also love. The Doctor here is a bit more cross than Baker usually plays him, but it’s only because he’s aware of the graveness of the situation. He still has the acerbic wit and contempt for authority that we love so much about him. He also has one of my very favorite lines, which he says to Chase when they’ve been captured: “Have you met Ms. Smith? She’s my best friend.” Tony Beckley as Harrison Chase is the perfect blend of effete erudition and crippling insanity and his right-hand-man Scorby, played by John Challis, is snarling violence and unabashed self-preservation all rolled into one. The Krynoid suit itself is a redressed and repainted Axon costume from “The Claws of Axos,” but it somehow feels different. This might be the Tom Baker story I’ve seen more than any other, and I could watch it right now and still love it. It’s THAT good.
And so, there we have it. Season 13, in the running for the best single season of Doctor Who ever, coming right behind Season 7 for me, but it’s the Season 7-ness of “Zygons” and “Seeds” mixed with the Gothic Horror elements of the middle stories that makes this such a memorable and wonderful year. Elisabeth Sladen would step down as companion, the second longest in history in terms of episodes, after two stories into Season 14, and Philip Hinchcliffe would step aside at the end of it, but that means we have a whole other year of fantastic, horror-filled stories to talk about. But that’ll be on Monday.