The Sylvester McCoy Years

Much has been said about Sylvester's ratings and it is clear that the programme never recovered from its hiatus. All of Sylvester's work on the programme was frequently underadvertised and shown opposite the most popular programme in the country, Coronation Street. However, Season 24 expanded on the ratings from Colin's last season, with a 4.94m/86.21 average, despite being placed opposite such heavy opposition. Things looked better for the anniversary year with a 0.40m increase, though the chart position was actually 2.46 down. Sylvester's final season, for whatever reason, bombed, slumping to just 4.16m/94.4. A great shame.

Sylvester's highest-rated stories were Silver Nemesis (5.5m, 89); The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (5.43m, 93); Remembrance of the Daleks (5.35m, 86) and Delta and the Bannermen (5.3m, 90). The three lowest-rated stories of all time were Ghostlight (4.1m, 97); The Curse of Fenric (4.1m, 110) and Battlefield (3.65m, 94). However, it may not have been as bad as it at first appears: while the ratings were the lowest, the chart position for all three of Sylvester's season were actually significantly higher than those for Tom Baker's final season.

Season 24

Season 24 was a horrible debut for anyone, and has been justifiably knocked as the worst Doctor Who season ever. Yet in many important respects its an improvement over the previous year.

Whereas Doctor Who had spent the last four years in a mire of navel-gazing continuity that alienated all but the hardcore of fans, Time and the Rani was an unashamed two-fingers to the self-referencing that was strangling the show. The pre-credits spell out this new philosophy perfectly, as a computer-generated Tardis is buffeted through space and Colin Baker (McCoy in a wig after Baker refused to reprise the role) is regenerated into Sylvester in less than three seconds. Blam! On come the opening credits, with the most sophisticated images yet. Highlights include the revolving Tardis, lowlights McCoy being forced to wink at the viewer (Hed been mislead into believing that this was a tradition all the Doctors took part in) and the ghastly logo, the worst ever for the show. All of this may not actually be any good, but it was different, it was a breath of fresh air, rather than the recycled stuff Baker had to work through.

With a quantelled pink sky and astoundingly cheap sets, this was Doctor Who at its most childish. Pathetic rubber monsters with four eyes and wings, Bonnie Langford in her most annoying characterisation, Kate OMara hamming it up and dressing as Bonnie, plus umpteen pratt falls. McCoy was an experienced theatre actor, though an unknown in television terms. The public knew him more for the spoons and the ferrets down the trousers, so it was unfortunate that the story caused him to play on these audience preconceptions. Despite all this, however, McCoy does seem to get a handle on the character rather quickly, and can be impressive in his quieter moments. Most importantly, the eccentricities of his character feel right, and not the contrived bellowings of a Colin Baker. This is a man who you can believe is as daft as he pretends. The tendency for malapropisms (dropped for the following story, but used again in Delta and the Bannermen) is grating, though there are some nice moments of humour here and there. ("Ive met your companion Mel." "Well dont hold that against me.")

The only story to be script edited by Cartmel but not commissioned by him, astoundingly it was originally planned for Colin Baker. Thats right, had the series returned under the usual lead it would have opened with this travesty of a story involving lime-skinned aliens and a giant brain. Only the fact that its all so new, with its own radically different style (including the new electronic incidental music that would characterise the era) make it worthwhile. Crass and tacky, it nevertheless screams out with originality.

The next two stories featured actors that have taken Shakespearean roles on film. Unfortunately for the programme, Richard Briers plays his part as if hes still in Ever Decreasing Circles, and Ken Dodd acts like hes still with the Diddymen. This is never more disappointing than with Paradise Towers. Whereas Delta and the Bannermen is an enjoyably silly romp, played straight Towers could have been a classic. Inspired by the J.G. Ballard novel High Rise, it tackles bureaucracy, gang warfare and cannibalism. Maybe afraid to take this to its logical conclusion (the series had been suspended just two years earlier for violence), the comedic elements were played up, and not a single performance reached sincerity. This was Doctor Who as light entertainment, and while the sets were okay, if artificial, the "killer robots" looked anything but.

"Discretion is my middle name" claimed Bonnie in Delta and the Bannermen. Strange, I thought "pain in the arse" was her middle name. Actually, I dont think Bonnies that bad an actress (seriously!) and was the best thing in Dimensions in Time. She wasnt completely awful in The Trial of a Timelord parts 9-12 either. Yet somewhere in between those two stories the directors and scriptwriters forgot to allow her to break her mould and instead stereotyped her as Violet Elizabeth. It was the seventies all over again, and Bonnie was squeaming and squeaming until shes sick. Or were sick, one or the other. The messiest of the season 24 stories, it begs the question why do the male Bannermen turn bright green and alienesque, but the females stay as totty? And what relevance do Morgan Deare and Stubby Kaye have to the plot? The story also introduced the Doctors cumbersome and garish "question mark umbrella", which, combined with the hat and the question-mark jumper (John Nathan-Turners suggestion, Sylvester remarked in 96 that it was "overstating it a little") made him a prop-laden Doctor. That said, apart from the jumper and the brolly, his costume was infinitely preferable to those of his eighties stablemates. Colin needs no explanation, while Peters was too uniform like. Sylvesters was a mix and match grab bag of clothes that you could at least imagine he washed occasionally.

Dragonfire, while suffering from some clumsy exposition, did at least try to turn things around back to a more "normal" Who. It saw the return of Tony Selby as Sabalom Glitz, one of only two continuity references the season made. (Unless you count the non-distracting cameos by The Leisure Hives Argolins in the background of this and Time and the Rani) As the Rani had been introduced just two seasons earlier, Glitz the prior year, this wasnt the sort of distancing, fannish reference and didnt rely on preknowledge of those adventures in order to be understood. This story also marked the first instance of McCoy reading a book with "Doctor" in the title. (Here he browses through "The Doctors Dilemma"; Remembrance of the Daleks sees him reading "Doctor in the House"). Its also fun to note the amount of film references Dragonfire throws up: The Wizard of Oz, Nosferatu, Aliens, Superman and Night of the Living Dead are all homaged, as well as Faustian legend and a handy spoof of the intellectual studywork "Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text".

Best of all, though, the story exited a mishandled Langford and introduced Ace. While the character clearly had a lot more drive than any in the last four years ("Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?"), Sophie Aldred wasnt the most experienced actress to bring her to life. The scene where Ace and Mel are menaced by the robotic dragon Mel screams her guts out, Ace stands there with not so much as a murmur clearly establishes the agenda, though seeing a twenty-five year old jumping up and down shrieking "Ace!" "Wicked!" and claiming shes sixteen is quite uncomfortable. Aldred also sounds clumsy and self-conscious with some of the lines, and although much more successful than Mel or Peri, Ace isnt quite the Second Coming of companions that fans would have you believe. Interestingly, when I (sad confession alert!) applied to write a novel in the New Adventures series I received a character profile that revealed that "Ace is not a virgin". In the backstory, apparently, its revealed that she shagged Glitz before the story takes place. No wonder shes so hostile towards him the whole story. Finally, the ending where Kanes face melts was the first time Doctor Who had scared the shit out of kids in years, and the BBC received loads of lovely complaints, whereas the Doctors farewell speech to Mel was probably the best bit of writing the whole season.

Season 25

Remembrance of the Daleks seemed like an instant almost-classic at the time it was aired, largely due to coming on the back of seasons 23/24. The thought of a "serious" Who story, done "properly" was almost unimaginable at the time of transmission, and I personally expected the series to end its days continuing the camp light entertainment rut it had sunk into. So while the story does take things seriously, its also, on reflection, tacky and vulgar. While Andrew Morgans direction shows occasional innovation (as with his only other contribution, Time and the Rani, hes fond of POV shots from the monster), the MTV cut and paste nature of events bores. Ben Aaronovitch is arguably the weakest writer of the era, an amateurish continuity fetishist with a predilection for set pieces. The excessive continuity, which would alienate the dwindling audience, is also famous for getting it completely wrong. While this story is so anal it even features the voice behind K-9 as one of the Daleks, it misspells the "Foreman" from the very first Doctor Who story. Perhaps the only decent bit of this self-referencing is the moment which makes buffs irate, with Ace turning on a TV only to hear the announcer introducing a new science fiction series "Doc-" The scene cuts away.

Despite being made in the late eighties, the Daleks have never looked cheaper, and that includes the underrated Destiny of the Daleks. Theres a "time controller" which is really one of those static balls you can get for £15 down the market, and a human slave whos plugged into the Dalek mainframe via a crashhelmet with a Dalek eyestalk cellotaped to it. Like Aaronvitchs other meagre effort, Battlefield, its too ambitious for the limited budget, and when McCoy gives his first poor performance, bellowing at an equally OTT Davros, youre taken back to the classic Victoria Wood sketch with "Crayola". The Doctor was finding increasingly violent solutions to his problems at this stage in the series. Even in the light-hearted Delta and the Bannermen he caused Gavrok to be stung multiple times by bees, and his solution to the trouble at Paradise Towers was to blow up the great architect with a stick of dynamite. Here he destroys Skaro and talks the black Dalek to death. (This was changed from the planning stages where he would have had a special gun for the purpose). This darker edge coincides with the "year zero" mentality, a good idea to reinstate some mystery to the Doctors character. However, as this "mystery" involves innate understanding of An Unearthly Child, The Three Doctors and The Deadly Assassin in order to be appreciated, its a misstart here. Inconceivably, this ropy story with horrible incidental music and wobbly Daleks was voted as one of the ten greatest Doctor Who stories in a recent DWM poll. Its okay, but I doubt Id even say it was one of the ten best Dalek stories, much less stories full stop.

The Happiness Patrol was another tale that had averse critical opinion when contrasted with the previous season. With only four episodes between it and season 24, it initially felt like a return to the camp and silliness of 87. However, closer inspection shows that its poles apart, with a slightly nastier, cynical edge. Going under the working title "The Crooked Smile", plans were rumoured to include Portmerion filming, skewed camera angles and black and white film. While all of these may or may not be true, what we got was still good enough. The ultimate in McCoys "oddball" stories, theres quite simply been nothing like it in Doctor Who before or since.

Drawing on noir and expressionist cinema, this truly surreal take on the Thatcher years (with alleged sideways swipes at unemployment and gay rights) takes on another edge entirely. Probably destined always to be more popular with students (who loved it) than Doctor Who fans (who, by and large, didnt), the serial is strong in having the ultimate comic monster: The Kandyman. The BBC successfully fought off legal action from Bassetts after the fair resemblance between the android and Bertie. However, with his arsenal of superb catchphrases ("What TIME do you call THIS?"; "I can feel one my MOODS coming on!") and psychotic personality, David John Pope did a wonderful job in bringing him to life. Look out for botched Kandy Kitchen Kontinuity, which sees the Kandyman used with thanksgain a lower jaw in the second and third episodes (he looks scarier without it; and loses both jaws when in the tunnel) and Earl Sigma lose his American accent.

Despite initial appearances, this is one of the best-acted McCoy stories, with the two leads underplaying their roles opposite great support from Ronald Fraser, Harold Innocent, John Normington and Jonathan Burn. Criticisms may be brought against "Fifi", the feeble dog puppet, and the getaway car that travels at five miles an hour, though the only real complaint lies with its black-and-white morality. The seventh Doctors growing tendency for making speeches leads to him explaining the moral of the story to Helen A at the climax. This is a worrying trend, as it doesnt credit the viewer with the intelligence to understand moral ambiguity. While it was refreshing to see the series so inspired once more, the majority of Doctor Who was written by men in their thirties and forties; the McCoy era was being written by men in their twenties and thirties. It was this kind of trend towards introspection, contemporary referencing and adolescent angst that would shape the spin-off New Adventures, which were, lets be honest, in the main indulgent and tedious.

Silver Nemesis has the good (bad?) fortune of having its production stages recorded by a New Jersey team for a special "Making Of". It reveals some interesting points, such as the writer claiming that the main priority for having the Cybermen in the story was that its the silver anniversary story "and the Cybermen are silver". With such motivation, its no wonder that this, arguably the most derided tale of the era, is a sloppily written indulgent mess. Other revelations from the behind-the-scenes shoot include an interview with Anton Diffring (whose hammy German accent turns out to be a real German accent) who says he refused to do the part four times and only agreed so he could come to England and watch Wimbledon. Both leads express tension on the shoot. In her book based on the series, Ace!, Sophie Aldred said how Sylvester "uncharacteristically" snapped at her during this tale and made her cry. The lack of time, resources and general sparky temperaments on set show exactly why Silver Nemesis, is, frankly, a travesty.

Its pointless even mentioning that the Cybermen have a weakness to gold dust it clogs their breathing apparatus yet here theyre just allergic to gold full stop. Why the 25th anniversary story should only have three episodes is unknown, though as it has an identical plot to Remembrance of the Daleks and is padded out with grotesquely unfunny comic setpieces its perhaps fortunate that it wasnt longer. The "humour" straddles the two poles of camp and straight and falls nowhere in between. Its a fundamentally serious story, and yet "funny" things happen because theyre "funny" and not because of any plot logic. So that when the irritating Lady Peinforte materialises out of thin air in a crowded restaurant, no-one bats an eyelid for comic effect. Yet of course, that wouldnt happen in real life, so any sense of realism is lost and you just end up feeling vexed by sheer stupidity of it all. Sophie Aldred, one of those girls that you feel sure has presented Blue Peter, gives one of her worst, most stagy performances. Its notable that the tradition of Ace calling McCoy "professor", only changing it to "Doctor" in times of stress, is completely forgotten here. Many elements of the story (particularly the extended video edition) make no sense until the following years The Curse of Fenric. And while this was the second attempt to reintroduce the Doctors mysterious past, it proves fruitless and amounts to little more than Aldred cheesily whispering "who are you?" at the end. A wasted opportunity.

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy had its tent interiors rushed-filmed in the BBC car park after an asbestos scare in the studios. However, the tight schedule isnt obvious in what is arguably the finest story of the season. Colourful and witty, its a story that combines the untapped fears of both clowns and robots, while its depiction of werewolves and the undead are two of the most horrific things in late eighties Doctor Who. Some of the dialogue is so exotic its reminiscent of Douglas Adams. The Doctor drinks tea from the "Grotsvalley of Malegathon", and we learn of the "Grand Pagode of Synathon" and the "singing squids of Anagonia".

However, the major calling card of the story is that within its pretty good plot is a post-modern self-deconstruction. Its barely noticeable at first, with Peggy Mount blasting the two leads: "What sort of costume do you call that? And hers is no better!" Soon, though, the pace of it picks up, with the family of three (who are a very obvious parody of the audience at home) complaining that things are starting to drag in the third episode. This then leads on to Gian Sammarcos fanboy character and the famous line: "Although I never got to see the early days, I know its not as good as it used to be, but Im still terribly interested." This is the sort of thing Scream would be praised for seven years later, though it did little for Doctor Whos flagging profile at the BBC. Though as they were screening it opposite Coronation Street, it seemed obvious they were desperate to kill it off. Maybe this is what makes the tarot card scene the Doctor being shown his future as The Hanged Man retrospectively chilling. While Daniel Peacock may send up his role, the rest give fine performances, the only real letdown being the lacking final episode. The family in the audience is revealed to be omnipotent, vengeful Gods who want to spend all day watching Sylvester doing tricks hed learnt off Ali Bongo. The Doctor claims he had planned the thing all along, but somehow it just doesnt sit right and seems lazy.

Season 26

Its odd that in what was conceptually, productively and logistically McCoys finest season, he gives his worst performances. An underrated actor in the role, he was perhaps strongest operating on nervous energy for his first. The anniversary season saw a dubious concept of the word "acting" in Remembrance of the Daleks, and his tiredness was apparent in Silver Nemesis. But generally it was still fine. For season twenty-six we get the hammed-up "If we fight like animalssssss" speech in Survival, the lip-quivering challenge to Light in Ghostlight, and then his entire performance in Battlefield. Put simply, McCoy seems to find conveying anger impossible. Look at the cringe-making bellowing to Morgaine in the second episode, or the "if theyre dead" speech in the fourth. And to think this man was the star of the show. Yet its not just Sylvester at fault in the weak season opener. Old hands Nick Courtney and Jean Marsh do okay with their lines, yet generally most seem to struggle. Even talented actresses like Angela Bruce, a good choice as the new Brigadier, seem to flounder, possibly embarrassed at the lines they have to say ("You and your freaky friends!"???) Angela Douglas is woefully stagy as fan-wank creation Doris (in 1974s Planet of the Spiders the Brigadier refers to a "Doris in Brighton"), while Christopher Bowen is downright pitiful. Perhaps this is the fault of Michael Kerrigan, in thankfully his only directing job for the series. And to think this was originally planned for Graeme Harper.

The Doctor wears a new, dark jacket for the season, an improvement perhaps, though it does clash with the silly hat, jumper and umbrella. To combat this, Sophie Aldred also gets to change, this time into a bum-hugging tight trouser combination. Nice. The story itself is a surprisingly rare foray for Who into the nature of parallel universes. Featuring a Doctor who is motivated by the actions of his future self, and who may or may not be Merlin in an alternate reality, this has the makings of a pretty good tale. However, things get in the way. Maybe its the scene where Sophie Aldreds dialogue is mirrored by real-life events. So that when she describes an explosion to her new-found friend, Shou Yuing (who's so irritating even the Doctor doesn't bother to talk to her over the course of the four episodes), a real explosion occurs, and so on. You won't find a more contrived scene in an episode of Eastenders, and to make it worse, Aces dialogue is so childish that it makes you pine back for the glory days of Bonnie Langford.

In fact, the writing is the major stumbling block. While actors who take it seriously populate Battlefield, the exposition-heavy, cranky dialogue undermines its credibility. Also poorly plotted, the way the villagers are evacuated mid-way through after they no longer serve any purpose to the plot is appalling. Continuity rears its unnecessary head, the whole thing acting as an ill-advised love letter to Pertwee. Truly appalling moments, some of the worst in the shows history, occur in the second episode. Here Aldreds dialogue is best described as "functional"; including the scene where she and the Doctor are attacked by rubbish effect snakes. "Its some kind of automated defence system, isnt it?" she asks, explaining it for the viewers. "Yes" the Doctor rather helpfully answers. Next, she runs into a dead end. "Doctor, its a dead end" she explains. The whole lousy scene is only notable for the fact that, behind-the-scenes, Aldred was nearly injured when the waterlogged glass casing she was in started to crack. Only Sylvester noticing and crying out to the crew managed to save her. Aaronovitchs major fault, a lesson still not learnt since Remembrance, is not being able to acknowledge Doctor Whos budget. Where Marc Platt would compose the following story on limited sets and minimal special effects, Aaronovitch takes up most of the budget with the hoards of extras and a helicopter. The strain this takes on the already sparse resources means that were left with pathetic sparkler guns for the knights and a rubber blue monster that does nothing in the plot anyway.

On the plus side, the personal interaction between characters is quite interesting. Not the obvious stuff, like the forced Bambera/Ancelyn romance, but little touches like the fact that Peter Warmsley hates Ace on site. Or (only in the extended video, why they edited it out Ill never know, as they were the best scenes) the animosity Ace feels towards the original Brigadier. Some final questions: Ace and Shou Yuing wear the same clothes throughout the story, even though it takes place over two days. Dont they have B.O. in Doctor Whos universe? Also, where does the Doctor get his money? And is it really possible to start a nuclear attack from a portacabin? The attack in question is averted with one second to go by the Doctor, who bellows "end the madness!" unconvincingly. Morgaine agrees to end it just so she doesnt have to see McCoy act any longer. The Doctor then goes outside and uses some plot device and rather silly - "mind powers" on Mordred. The serial also marked, for better or for worse, the start of an entirely Earth-based season, and all four stories were "straight", with none of the parody or satire that McCoy had previously given us.

Ghostlight is a story that has been slated and vilified in almost equal measure. Cited as "the best Doctor Who story in a decade" in one of the broadsheets, it was also attacked in Mark Campbells Pocket Essential as the worst-ever, where "you can hear the nails being hammering into Doctor Whos coffin as you watch it." In probably the largest survey of fan opinion, meanwhile, DWMs 1998 poll placed it within the top forty favourites. Id go along with that.

Not since season 20 had the Tardis made a landing that wasnt planned (barring the Rani buffeting it off course in all her stories). The fact that the Doctor had finally learnt how to control his ship after all these years was never really capitalised upon in the Colin Baker years, where even whinging Peri would moan at his "aimless wandering". One of the innovations of the McCoy years, apart from the fact that the Doctor and his assistant didnt split up every five seconds and the Tardis wasnt used as a convenient safehouse and rarely featured, was the control. The Doctor now knew exactly where he was going, and planned for it. Adventures were now personal battles, which may have got tiresome after a time but was just right here. Ghostlight shows a more ruthless side to the Doctors character, where he takes Ace back to her biggest fear: a haunted house she discovered in her teens. The time of the house we visit is that of the Victorian age, and, as usual, the BBC excels in costume dramas and period pieces. Not only that, but, as mentioned, this is the most perfectly conceived story in terms of budget, and doesnt drain the shows resources. Not bad for a writer who along with Full Circles Andrew Smith was one of only two non-professional writers commissioned for the series. And that is the big flaw/success of the story. For Ghostlight is arguably the most intelligent and incomprehensible Doctor Who entry of all time. With the decreased episode count, another innovation the McCoy years were serving up were three episode stories (which had only happened once before, in 1964), a nice change which led to some snappy, pacy tales with none of that "running down corridors" nonsense to pad out the plot. Unfortunately in the case of Ghostlight this means that every single line, every mannerism must be fully observed in order to understand it.

Of course, when you have understood it and followed where all the different characters fit in, the plot is actually very, very simple. That said, I did have to watch it at least three times to make head or tale of it. Yet what are we saying if we send out messages like that? That television is bad if we cannot readily comprehend it? Ghostlight, a complex, character-led and dialogue-heavy period piece was the last production of Doctor Who before the 1996 TV movie. After this we got a dumbed-down BBC, with cookery shows and docusoaps. To say a programme is a bad programme because it demands we use our brains is surely a bad thing indeed, and we have only ourselves to blame.

Other elements that make this one so good are the fact that, just eleven minutes into the first episode, Sylvester finds an excuse to lose that silly hat and umbrella. His appearance is so much more suited with his rarely seen hair; its a shame he didnt get to do more like this. Also notable is Ian Hogg, one of the best ever villains in the series, surrounded by a supporting cast who were the highest calibre of the era. Alan Wareing (Survival, Greatest Show) is also debatably its best director. While Ghostlight may wear its Darwin-Pygmalion-Greenaway pastiches a little too much on its sleeve, this is still the wittiest and most sophisticated three episodes of the whole McCoy years. Some may find John Hallams interpretation of Light a little too fey, or the climax where Sylvester defeats him by saying the word "change" about fifty times a little lacking, but not even the crumbling makeup on Nimrod or McCoys brief gurn in the third episode can really distract from what is an exceptional foray.

Although The Curse of Fenric isnt quite as good as Ghostlight, in many ways its perhaps preferred as it has a more satisfying climax. The idea of having a story that ties up continuity could seem a foolish idea, but this isnt an Attack of the Cybermen-style roping in of old stories, but one that merely relates to two years previously. The idea of an enemy that has been surreptitiously observing the Doctor and setting traps for him is quite chilling, and nicely concluded here. It also makes sense of Silver Nemesis as it explains that Fenric was the being who brought all of its elements together. Okay, it would have been better if Silver Nemesis had made sense on its own standings, but this is still a nice touch. As for the story itself, its pleasing to see Doctor Who returning to horror, a genre its always seemed unusually comfortable with. Here the homages to Dracula, The Fog, Night of the Living Dead et al come thick and, indeed, fast. Some may claim the haemovres are too blue and rubbery, but for a family teatime slot blood-sucking vampire creatures were a daring move. Acting, too, is generally pretty good, with McCoy giving his best performance of the season and Sophie giving her best performance full stop. Janet Henfrey is embarrassingly over the top as Miss Hardaker, and the two stage school brats from Grange Hill are a little cringeworthy too. Dinsdale Landen is excellent in both his dual roles, however, and while Alfred Lynch may sound like hes gargling with quicksand, he does give an effectively haunted performance. The decision to show a less-than-white English army in the Second World War is also a bold move, a refreshing change from the black and white depictions of the war, while Nicholas Parsons is surprisingly decent in a role as a faithless vicar.

Lastly, Survival. When I first saw Survival I wasnt overly impressed as I looked upon it with shallow eyes: the pathetic animatronic kitten, Hale and Pace cameo and ludicrously unconvincing "dead cats" were the least of my worries. What really appalled was that this was the daftest premise ever in Who: black kittens teleport from world to world, tracking their prey for a planet of upright cheetah people. It was silliness itself, though in writing off Survival I was overlooking one important factor: its also great fun.

Doctor Who always operated from a distanced, middle-class perspective. With its initial suburban mundanity and Earthy language (although it's still disconcerting to hear Sergeant Patterson tell Ace that she doesn't "give a toss"), Survival is the nearest the series ever got to a sense of genuine reality. Perhaps because of this, this is the only instance where Aces working class street cred seems believable. The first episode in particular is a nicely shot blend of mystery and light humour, with some witty lines ("Hi Ace, thought you were dead. Thats what they said. Either you were dead or youd gone to Birmingham.") and neat little jokey references, such as the Cats poster. Also notable is the unnamed alien planet which, making good use of incidental music and paintbox technology, is the most convincing alien environment seen in the show. And yes, it is a quarry.

Anthony Ainley once complained in an interview with DWB that he was deliberately forced by the producer to go over the top as The Master. Thankfully, though, he gives what is possibly his most understated performance in this story. Well, apart from when he howls at the moon, obviously. His reliance on the Doctor to find a way to escape, as well as his possession, lend an interesting slant to the character.

The supporting cast are all very good, with Julian Holloway hilarious as Sergeant Patterson. William Barton is enjoyably OTT as Midge, while its odd to see Emmerdales temptress Adele Silva as a young girl in episode three, fearing the "bad cat man". Another odd moment occurs in the second episode, with the following exchange between Ace and the Doctor: "They could eat you... or worse." "Whats worse?" "Lets just say that they are dangerous attracted." A rape reference in Doctor Who? Also a first is the gay joke in part three, where Patterson double-takes at Derrick holding his hand and lets out a "Whats your game then?"

The biggest thing to take Doctor Who into the 90s (or at least, it would have been if it hadnt been cancelled) was Sakuntala Ramanee as Aces friend Shreela. Doctor Whos abominable track record of racial representation was something that was contested here, and although Ramanee doesnt get a huge part, she does get to carry a proactive role that never once refers to her ethnic origins. This reassessment of the shows selective casting was something that was only beginning to take hold in the final year. Even in season twenty-four, the nature of tokenism was still strong, with a black girl as a red Kang who only gets to say five words in Paradise Towers, or a silent black character in the same story. In a very real sense, this tokenism is worse than having no ethnic actors at all, though Dragonfire did give us a black mercenary who gets quite a few lines and didnt have to refer to his colour in the part. However, the following years Remembrance of the Daleks, while nominally about racism, features a black café worker whose only dialogue relates to his ancestors being slaves. The three other stories making up the anniversary season featured a black performer in each, though all three had to portray musicians: Courtney Pine as himself, Richard Sharp a blues musician and Ricco Ross as a rapping ringmaster. And so season twenty-six was where Doctor Who finally caught up with reality, and was promptly cancelled. Battlefield saw Angela Bruce make a promising Brigadier who had to endure sexism but not racism. Though in the unseen character backstory, shes so cheesed off because UNIT wouldnt allow her to be posted to then-apartheid led South Africa. Ling Tai made a friend for Ace, though got called "yellow slant-eyed..." by her while under mind control from Morgaine. Ghostlight features no ethnic actors, though does contain the most prominent reference to racial hatred when Ace tells of her friend Manishas flat: "white kids firebombed it." Survival took this strand and consolidated it with a narrative that reflected less the public school pomposities of the sixties, more the period it was written in.

The climax of the story is the only place where it falls a little flat, probably because we were promised a secrets-revealing clash between the Doctor and the Master ("Im far more than just a Timelord") which got cut and we were left with a rather mawkish epilogue because all involved secretly knew there wasnt a hope in Hell of being recommissioned.

While the twenty-sixth season was being recorded, plans were already underway for the following year. McCoy was to be contracted for another season (probably leaving at the end of that one) and Sophie Aldred was going to do eight episodes. The idea behind Aces leaving was that the Doctor would enrol her in Gallifreys academy, possibly to get his own back on the Timelords. A three-parter by Ben Aaronovitch (Remembrance, Battlefield) would have seen Ace performing a Timelord test by commanding a starship against the insectoid warrior race Metatraxi. The story that exited the character would be by Mark Platt (Ghostlight), set in the 1960s and featuring the return of the Ice Warriors.

For a replacement, a gangland boss daughter was to team up with the Doctor for excitement. However, the cancellation of the series led to all plans being shelved, and the series continuing only by writers in the New Adventures series. Some were written by professional writers, and writers who had worked on the series. Others were written by fans that have made names for themselves in genre print as a result (most notably Paul Cornell) and were sometimes better than the "professional" efforts, sometimes not. Perhaps a commendable attempt to continue the series with a more adult basis, the worrying tendency for excessive sex, swearing and pop culture references meant that they were pretty much hit-and-miss, if a damn sight better than the BBC books series. (If you want my opinion, from the very few Ive read, the best is Love and War, the worst, predictably, Transit).

The series continued in two shorts 1990's Search Out Space, featuring Sylvester, Sophie and K-9 in an educational BBC Schools 20 minute short - plus the notoriously bad Children in Need 14 minute special, Dimensions In Time. To be honest, the idea of mixing Doctor Who, Eastenders, house music and 3-D technology is fun in a really yucky way, but doubtlessly the public were becoming increasingly weary of the show by this stage. An expensive pilot episode for a possible English-American co-production was screened in 1996, during which Sylvester handed over the reins to Paul McGann. While not a bad effort, it... but maybe that should keep...

Meanwhile, while the period improved considerably on a year by year basis, and corrected many of the mistakes the show was starting to make by the mid-eighties, I cannot ignore the fact that so many of these experimental stories are failures, from the first season particularly. So that while the middle stories of season 26 are some of the better tales the series has to offer, for Sylvester's time overall the most I can award is: