Instead, what we got was untrained, undisciplined writing that was sometimes just plain horrible. Not in a worn, dull, plodding sense as in the past – the creakiness of certain late ‘70s scripts clearly shows in Douglas Adams’ attempts to spruce them up with Cambridge humour and in Christopher H Bidmead’s desperate top-to-tail rewriting of so much work – but it is poorly structured and very indicative of an extremely inexperienced writing team. Consequently, character motivation has a tendency to be variable at times, ‘good pictures’ or exciting incident overrides logical decision-making (for that quasi-2000AD ‘cool’ factor, natch), character comes out of plot instead of vice versa (e.g. the Doctor allowing Belasz to take the coin in “Dragonfire” when he protects Ace – a figure equally unknown to him – from the same fate), and entire serials emerge as little more than strings of set pieces.
This last one needs its own paragraph. “Silver Nemesis”. Same basic story as “Remembrance of the Daleks”: the Doctor has some weapon handy from his past and arrives on 20th century Earth to deploy it on an old enemy, with genocidal results. Eventually. This just about passes for okay in “Remembrance” for a couple of reasons. One, the Doctor is up against a formidable couple of enemies in the Emperor Dalek/Davros and the Black Dalek, so events do actually take him by surprise and he is forced to improvise. Two, Ben Aaronovitch had a workable three-act story and used every scene to tell it. Spin forward to “Nemesis” and the opposite is true. The Cybermen are presented more anemically than ever before, so much so that (in a startling example of poor research) the very touch of gold is enough to send them into catalepsy. Lady Peinforte and De Flores are no more impressive as villains, the former a raving nutter who spends most of the proceedings wandering around on the periphery while the latter is there to offer exposition and a ready supply of soldiers for action scenes. Yet Peinforte is best suited to this mess as she does precisely what the Doctor and the writer do: sit it out until the grand finale. In the meanwhile, the sorry excuse for a narrative plods along from irrelevant set piece to irrelevant set piece, killing time and viewers’ brain cells. But the worst sin is yet to come. Other than doing a bit of jiggery-pokery on the Nemesis statue that he could presumably have performed before he sent it into its orbit – you know, the one in which it’s been returning to Earth every 25 years for three-and-a-half centuries and causing incalculable if mathematically questionable strife – the Doctor contributed nothing by his presence. The three villainous parties would inevitably have wiped each other out until the last man standing had all three bits of the statue, at which point he (or she, or it) too would have been obliterated by the Doctor’s callous booby trap. And it’s a lucky thing too that it was the Cybermen, else his little validium bomb might have been directly responsible for the killing of some humans, and of course that wouldn’t do at all.
The writing is also indicative of a new team not just interested in paying no more than lip service to past stories but actively seeking to subvert what little common ground could be gathered from all the slight shifts in format over the preceding decades. In short, they had a dramatic template but took only its trappings and opted instead to build their own dramatic template. That this sometimes produced excellent stories is inarguable, but it’s less easy to call some of them Doctor Who. I think there’s a very fundamental difference between “wanderer explores worlds and rights the wrongs he discovers” and “wanderer anticipates wrongs on worlds and completes the tail end of various prearranged strategies before our eyes”. It is also, as I have already noted, less engaging dramatically as there are no real obstacles for the protagonist to overcome, no external conflicts he must deal with that he doesn’t already know the outcome to. Perhaps if any of this – you know, the revolutions, the genocides, the talking of sentient, intelligent beings into committing suicide – had created an internal, moral conflict in the Doctor, or in his companion as she witnesses his deeds, then I’d have applauded Cartmel’s efforts. Probably not in my youth, as to do so would be to question my own understanding of the consequences of the Doctor’s moral code, but such a strategy would have embraced all that Doctor Who stood for and imbued it with a maturity born of questioning the consequences of one’s actions. It would have necessitated making the programme more adult in tone, but I wonder how much a show about a guy who plots to commit genocide on a monthly basis can be considered a kids’ show anyway.
Instead, characterisation made necessarily thinner to mask the moral ambiguities introduced by the stories’ structural complexity was the order of the day. Which means either the writers weren’t aware of the moral vacuum their ideas were inevitably leading to or else they didn’t care. That Cartmel blamed fans’ dislike of his run of the show on inappropriate lighting (in a 1994 TSV interview) is suggestive of the latter, as it tells us that he thought the writing was just fine and that mood and visual imagery are king.
As for season twenty-four, it stinks, but so do most of seasons seventeen, twenty, twenty-one and probably a couple of others, and I don’t mind so much. It’s a blip in the production process, and it was a turbulent time. All I know is, by the end of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy” episode one I stopped watching. At the age of eleven I grant you, but I stopped, having been devoted to the programme through its umpteen Australian 1980s repeats since about the age of three. I’d been slow to get into JNT material in the past, preferring the repeats of ‘70s episodes (which were hardly repeats to me anyway), but I think it’s safe to say I enjoyed everything up to “Remembrance of the Daleks”. And I must have come back for “Silver Nemesis” (which ran after “Greatest Show” in Australia), but only because it had Cybermen in it.
Took me until the ‘90s video era to see season twenty-six, though. Which disappoints me, because I love most of it. But it’s still not Doctor Who.