WhoThrough: Doctor Who Season Thirteen

Andrew Ellard
9 min readJan 31, 2022

Tom Baker’s second season is full of horrors. In the best way.

When my wife and I married in 2014, we started watching Doctor Who in order, one story a week. Five and a half years later we finished and started again. These are a combination of my scattershot notes from the first and second WhoThroughs.

TERROR OF THE ZYGONS

It’s a really accessible, well-produced story, this — ideal for launching a new season. Opening on the idyllic scenes of a TARDIS team trudging through pretty landscape, rather than the omitted landing business, makes this feel more like we’re catching up after some time away. But you can still tell it’s really a bookend to the last series, and a wrap of the Harry/UNIT year.

Baker returns to his laid back manner in dealing with UNIT, slouching in scenes and acting like it’s beneath him. The post-glam Zygons are fabulous designs with their organic tech like something out of Cronenberg. The Doctor seems like an immediately-obey-me officer for UNIT, where Pertwee just worked for them — an odd reversal but it totally works; like they achieve rank through force of personality.

The part one cliffhanger is edited perfectly — none of the pausing that used to happen, a really tight and shocking Zygon attack. In fact editing is where the show has really improved under the new producer — the barn sequence in episode two is shockingly effective. Zygon-Harry lurking in the shadows is mad sinister, too. Evil Harry is played magnificently, and the sequence is terrifying.

In fact location stuff is always very good — Benton leading UNIT in the woods looks like a genuine military, erm, unit like never before. (And the Zygon running away is filmed like distant Sasquatch footage. Mythic, hard to get hold of.) It helps that the Zygons are written as effective and efficient, the decision to capture over killing given a atypically credible story justification.

It’s a giveaway of how the show used to work that when Harry is shot (in an astonishingly nasty scene) nobody thinks to contact his family or friends - a character context mode that wouldn’t really show up until late Cartmel and RTD. Many villains have been able to ‘watch Doctor Who’ on the screen, but I think this is the first story to suggest that’s caused by a planted bug. That the monster is a cyborg, presumably augmented with the flesh technology of the Zygons rather than typical machinery, is sadly never mentioned. (Ditto the eye-bug in the deer head.)

Everyone traipses back to Scotland at the end just to see the TARDIS and turn down a lift home! Bye Harry — a military wimp, an imbecile doctor, a too-serious funnyman, an old-fashioned time-traveller. Love ya.

PLANET OF EVIL

Not doing a scan before landing on a planet where you expect hostiles have attacked the party you’re seeking is bonkers forcing of events (and yet we wouldn’t have noticed if they’d omitted the idea entirely). Mind you, this is the guy who didn’t assume Sarah would need oxygen despite looking human and being found on a planet with an oxygen atmosphere.

It’s a struggle to care for the first half when the wrongfully-accused Doctor should be able to persuade these straightforward men, and the people are so stern and dull.

I’m fascinated by the effect of the studio jungle shot on film. Far more real-feeling and impressive, because of how our eyes have been trained. One has to assume the jump between formats made the planet feel ‘realer’ at the time — like they’d gone out to a location. It's not just the planet, the exterior set of the spaceship is fab, too.

The part three cliffhanger is neat in itself — and the space coffins are nicely set up — but pretty arch as far as plans to punish killers go. Switching setting half way through a four-parter helps keeps the show awake, though one can hardly these corridors a step up from the jungle. Not cluing us in to what the Doctor is doing in the final part really hurts the tension.

The blue space trousers everyone wears are too tight, you can see every gentleman’s outline.

PYRAMIDS OF MARS

The first TARDIS scene is lovely and characterful — it makes you wonder why the script editor didn't either write more like this, or get other writers to. Strange hero shot of Baker to open the scene, too — a near Indiana Jones-type raise of the hat. Strong “you don’t need UNIT to do an Earth story” vibes to the dialogue, made hard fact by setting the story in what would become UNIT’s HQ long before they ever moved in.

Episode one feels like it plays all its cards early — the house mystery, the mummies, the space corridor in a sarcophagus, Scarman’s brother, the butler and Namin killed. What’s left to fill the other three? Sutek getting sniffy that “names mean nothing” and asking for space coordinates is a bit at odds with his legend, the way he goes about his Hammer-like business and the immediate reaction he has to the name ‘Time Lord’.

Lovely performance from Scarman struggling to talk like a human. Finding the radio telescope is aimed at Mars feels like an overlap with War of the Worlds, and Wells’ Time Machine is cited in the same story. The alternate, ruined 1980 is a huge, brilliant solve to the logic of the historical invasion story — one needed ever since historical stories ceased being fixed events that we run around (or cause) and started containing aliens. And boy is THAT a lurch of the show’s genre — arguably bigger than anything New Who did.

Shame Mars looks so crap; "It's vanished" they say of a door that's blatantly still built into the set. Sutekh's monitor is daft — shouldn't Scarman be seen from the sarcophagus' POV, and the Mars puzzle from Scarman's? Strange that the time factor the climax relies on didn't affect contact with Scarman. EVERYONE dies, every guest cast member — and the lack of mourning from Sarah makes it seem like her arc was to end up absorbing the Doctor's advice about how pointless it is to care that way.

Bungling episode four is a shame - the guest cast are mostly dead, we’re on Mars and the evil plan is foiled before the episode even starts. Meaning they have to threaten Sarah and bring the TARDIS into the plot just to keep things going. It feels like the finale was built to see the Osirans arrive and disappoint the Doctor.

THE ANDROID INVASION

Funny how I like Nation best when he’s not writing Daleks. Surely a minority view! The rock-based technology of the aliens is sadly more interesting than anything they do or say. But Crayford’s big justification scene in episode three is great — helped by his constant ‘rhetorical questions’ style. The reveal of the Doctor android is gorgeously edited, as is the tense pub stuff in ep one.

Usual failure to realise how hard the title gives away the Big Reveal of episode one, but at least the actually cliffhanger (an alien face) is a genuine shock. Crazy to be so derivative of the Autons, hand guns and all — and of the Zygons, all evil duplicates and bio-looking tech.

Sarah taking down an android guard in episode three is a gleeful excess of FX — chest sparks aplenty, and when you think it’s all done the dead droid’s back blows out! (You can do a lot more damage when you’re fighting inorganic enemies.)

The villains fixating on testing on the Doctor feels like it creates plot where otherwise there wouldn’t be one. Styggron and Crayford have a daft conversation in episode three about how each has swapped roles on the “kill the Doctor” debate, lampshading how silly and arbitrary that has been.

THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS

It’s easy to miss that this is built of warring factions like a lot of Who. But unlike most, this isn’t two similar groups with a single beef, or humans against monsters. It’s witches versus mad scientists — neither side monsters, neither side ‘normal’. And it’s so much richer for that.

Immediately confident of its black comic tone. Solon’s quest for a head should be risible, but instead it’s blackly comic — somehow this story manages its tone perfectly. Sumptuous colours — thick, garish reds and greens and purples. Effects are solid at getting the story told with weight, too — hefty rubber things and the TARDIS summoned by the Sisterhood.

They joyously overload the madness of Morbius — he’s described as a maniac before death, complains about what living in a jar is doing to him, get put in a casing that’s said to cause crazy-making pain and seizures and then his brain is dropped on the floor. The talking vocal chords are maybe the nastiest detail of this whole thing — at very least there’s a Dr Phibes vibe.

Sarah’s blindness was created to solve a plot problem — why the Doctor would return to Solon — but is executed with surprising emotional drama. (Solon’s kind lie while shaking his head is unusually layered for the show right now.) It’s more like the modern show where “And what interesting thing have we got for the companion to do this week?” would be a standard, useful question to avoid stock runarounds.

Is this the first time being a Time Lord causes fear in an enemy by reputation alone? (Condo fears his power.) These days it’s hard not to jump all over the idea that the Time Lords have been after the elixir of life. Lovely moment when the hungover Doctor feels like he’s been with Morbius — a feeling that will turn out to be true. Given the sisterhood’s failure to understand the basic science of a blocked chimney, it’s hard to believe the Time Lords actually respected them — which makes this more a case of exploitation, akin to how Solon uses Condo, and Morbius uses Solon.

At the top of episode four, the Morbius monster knocks out Solon, Sarah and the Doctor — and kills Condo. As with the pre-Pertwee show, what happens here offers two trial runs for the Master — now we get a Time Lord with a quest to return beyond his life-span, using body theft rather than regeneration. And on the flip side, you have Solon as a character whose mad scheme eventually gets out of hand and so he has to ally with the Doctor to sort it out.

THE SEEDS OF DOOM

Tom Baker is dark and angry almost throughout, quippy opening notwithstanding. and it’s very effective — it gives depth to his frivolity, makes it part of an internal psychological process, and makes the threat feel substantial. Tangential connection to UNIT an awkward fit after Android Invasion's thin semi-goodbye. (When a millionaire's chauffeur tries to kill the Doctor, he doesn't even phone the Brig?) Sarah on great form.

Thug and botanist make for a strongly dramatic pair. Chase is such a parody of a Bond villain — his rant against Bonsai is downright bonkers — that it must be deliberate. He's Goldfinger but, y'know, about plants. In some ways the gunpoint/escape/chase third episode is more like a Bond story than any Pertwee was. The reveal of Sir Colin in Ducat's car is a perfect subversion of expectation (the painting not being paid for had been clearly set up, so it’s an easy moment to take at face value). Scorby ends up in a very interesting position, beyond henchman.

Tundra stuff looks good, all very The Thing-ish. Or rather The Thing from Another World-ish, since the remake hasn’t happened yet. There was a time when a scary infected arm would be enough to end the first episode — plant-Charles killing a man is a real acceleration from 12 years ago.

Fascinating (and quite correct) that episode three starts with concerns about the Doctor dying — for us that wasn’t the cliffhanger, which focused on the seed being taken away. I kept waiting for a reveal of what was under Chase’s gloves, explaining why he constantly wore them — he does one scene without them, but it doesn’t seem to be for a specific reason.

Check out the WhoThroughs for Season One, Season Two, Season Three, Season Four, Season Five, Season Six, Season Seven, Season Eight, Season Nine, Season Ten, Season Eleven and Season Twelve.

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Andrew Ellard

Writer of things, script editor of things you actually like. The home of #tweetnotes. www.andrewellard.com