Review- Doctor Who Season 15 Collection


Just released in the ongoing Collection series of box sets, Doctor Who Season Fifteen brims with character and is bristling with ideas. If the production values sometimes flag you hardly notice because there is so much going on. Admittedly it’s not always cited as a fan favourite because it was the point at which Tom Baker’s presence became larger than life but if you enjoy that- and I certainly do- this is essential classic Doctor Who. Season Fifteen is a changeover season and these can be the most interesting ones where a production team are finding their feet and yet aspects of their predecessors remain. The results here are more varied than you’d expect.


There is an inventiveness in the Graham Williams years that even if they do source as liberally as Messrs Holmes and Hinchliffe, borrow from a much broader field. I wonder though that this latest Collection set will expose the financial limitations even more than the DVDs did reducing interest in the period. Perhaps you should adjust your tv set! I re watched these stories about six years ago to celebrate their fortieth anniversary What I found was that they remain hugely enjoyable romps whose occasional production shortcomings are more than matched by vibrant performances, clever dialogue and a sense of wonder. I’ve never subscribed to a prevailing fandom view that this season represents the moment when the show jumped the shark and while some have been critical of the tone or of Tom Baker’s performance I find they grow richer as time goes by. Then again I have always had a sense of the absurd.

With the modern series  cleaving towards a more human Doctor, this is a chance to see the character as an alien from another world with the different perspective that brings. While the lead actor is certainly less contained than he had been under previous producer Philip Hinchcliffe, he gives such a complete performance that I feel is perfectly balanced here. Perhaps later he went a bit too far but of course I liked that too.

Reviews of all six stories are featured on the Alt blog but I wanted to talk about some of the extras on the set here. Key amongst these is a brand new film about Graham Williams called Darkness and Light directed by Chris Chapman which is the best documentary yet on these Collection sets and I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more.

I once had the pleasure of meeting him to interview at a convention, a last minute assignment which had been sprung on me the previous night. You can even see me on the doc. Luckily I needed no research as this was one of my favourite periods of the show though even by then I’d become aware of its production woes. I have to admit that our back stage chat was considerably more interesting than the on stage one perhaps because I am definitely not a public speaker and he seemed slightly nervous about it all too. Once we’d geographically bonded (he’d been born in Birkenhead which faces Liverpool across the River Mersey) and decided, probably unwisely, to order drinks we ended up not prepping for the interview at all but talking generally.

Meeting people whose work you admire can be awkward but he was obviously skilled in putting people at ease. Had anyone listened in to our chat they would assume we’d known each other for years and that was all down to him being open, talkative and friendly. I was looking forward to bumping into him again perhaps at another event several years down the line where he was one of the main guests but it was only a few weeks before that convention the shock news came through that he had died.

Fandom’s long term view of his producership is shaped by many commentators but lacking his own input though there are a number of good interviews in fanzines. Why all his filmed interviews look as if they come from 1930 with scuzzy picture and sound I don’t know. This new documentary – which includes his family- assesses his whole career as well as trying to discover what he was like. What emerges is a portrait of a man who was very well liked and respected appearing to glide through life with a sense of cool. Yet he also seemed to be someone who kept his inner thoughts to himself and workwise there was the proverbial swan paddling away unseen. Various interviewees describe his ambition and drive while others talk of his relaxed non -confrontational approach during filming.

The documentary runs for over an hour and half giving ample time to explore the lesser known parts of his career, starting with his early work in rep before he makes a rapid rise once he joins the BBC. Clips from the pre Doctor Who shows he was involved with invariably show gritty, earthy material and indeed he had started on Target before he and Philip Hinchliffe essentially swapped roles.
His three Doctor Who years are covered in the most detail looking at his aims for the series, his love of bold storytelling and also frustrations when things didn’t go right notably ``Shada` and especially the fraught `Nightmare of Eden` after which he handed in his notice. Given this perspective it would be more apt to describe his Doctor Who as something of an achievement given the many hurdles over which he had to leap.

Early on in the documentary it is mentioned that he definitely had darker periods and probably suffered from a form of depression and there is the idea that he tried to maintain a positive outward demeanour believing if he did things would go right. The real advantage this film has comes from extensive contributions from his wife and now adult children who all talk candidly about the highs and the lows. Through their  words- especially his wife Jackie - you start to become familiar with him and his love for his family which makes the end of the story a poignant end to a very well -produced, absorbing documentary.

Also included in the set is a new feature on the making of `Horror of Fang Rock` anchored by Toby Hadoake and Louise Jameson in a real lighthouse which looks more comfortable than Fang Rock. The difficulties with the story are mentioned and we see an interesting digital recreation to scale of the circular sets which do look very cramped. The mix of archive footage and new interviews paints a thorough picture of a production made unusually at Pebble Mill in Birmingham. 

Elsewhere the erstwhile Leela enjoys an excellent conversation Mathew Sweet in which she chats about her career and much else besides. Always an interesting interviewee she is able to talk eloquently on so many topics aided by his interesting questions. She paints vivid pictures of people she’s met and places she’s been. She reveals too that while she could potentially name two culprits whose behaviour was wrong she accepts that values in the past were different.

In her own way though she often kicked against this and I’d never realised how many roles she’d taken on. As fans we tend to assume the importance of any actor’s Doctor Who involvement whereas sometimes it is only a small part of a long journey. Her tales of early theatrical life are told with such descriptive zeal I feel she would pen a cracking autobiography if she chose to.  She brings things to life vividly especially her family and early days in repertory theatre as well as acknowledging those who helped and inspired her along the way.

Unlike a lot of other former Doctor Who companions from the classic era who have either left acting or found roles difficult to come by she brings a freshness to the interview underlining she is still working busily. She cites her role in Tenko as her favourite – and the clips show it to be a full blooded performance- but is equally happy to praise her stint in Bergerac in a much less distinctive role as a very happy and useful job. Though filtering matters though her feminist ideals she has taken a pragmatic approach to her career which has paid dividends and she seems to focus on the positive rather than the negative. She retains an affection for Leela – despite some of the contradictions of the character – and it is clear this is another highlight. The interview runs for about an hour and a quarter and even then it feels like the conversation could go on for some time.

Leela also features in the `minisode` used to promote this blu ray set `The Final Battle` which shows her during the Time War and looks suitably epic.  It also means that Leela does face the Daleks after all with her customary defiance in a brief but well made scene in which the former savage has resolutely upgraded from a knife.



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