Doctor Who Season 15 marked the beginning of a brand new era for the programme, and the arrival of an iconic character.
Doctor Who had enjoyed a period of immense success under the producer Philip Hinchcliffe, but the series had also been under intense scrutiny. The level of horror and violence in the show was the subject of much debate in the press, and the campaigner Mary Whitehouse was particularly displeased with certain moments from the series – in particular, a scene from ‘The Deadly Assassin’ in which the Time Lord was held underwater.
And so by the time Doctor Who Season 15 came around, the BBC felt it was time to shake things up. A new producer in the form of Graham Williams was brought in, and he was issued with a vague remit to tone down the violence and introduce more humour.
It is perhaps surprising, therefore, that Doctor Who Season 15 begins with such a dark and atmospheric tale. ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ is set entirely within an Edwardian lighthouse, in the dead of night. A thick fog has isolated its inhabitants, and in the winding passages, the hapless humans are picked off one at a time by a shape-shifting alien. Written by Terrance Dicks, this season opener is a testament to the power of the series, and how much Doctor Who can do with limited resources.
But despite the success of Season 15’s opening story, it wasn’t exactly representative of the serials that followed. Staying true to his brief, Graham Williams steered the show towards lighter, more ‘family-friendly’ adventures, and these were altogether less gothic in style.
That is not to say that there was any dilution of the core SF values. Indeed, Doctor Who Season 15 contains a number of fan-favourite stories that continue to be enjoyed to this day.
‘The Invisible Enemy’ was arguably the most impactful. Written by the experienced team of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, this tale saw the Doctor and Leela reduced in size and sent on an epic quest through the caverns and recesses of the Time Lord’s own body – a fascinating idea which was well-executed considering the series’ modest budget.
But perhaps the most memorable part of this Doctor Who Season 15 story was the introduction of the robot dog K9. Initially, this remote-controlled companion was intended as a one-off – an entertaining lab assistant who would feature in ‘The Invisible Enemy’ only. But Graham Williams saw great potential in K9 and opted at the last minute to have him leave with the Doctor and Leela at the end of the story.
This turned out to be a canny move, and K9 was an instant hit with adults and children alike, even if he wasn’t so popular with the Doctor Who production team. K9 would remain with the series for many years, but he wasn’t the easiest of props to control and he was prone to crashing into walls and regular malfunctions. Indeed, a number of subsequent Doctor Who stories had to be rewritten to accommodate his shortcomings, and poor K9 was even written out of some adventures entirely.
But there is no denying the character’s enduring popularity, and he owes it all to Doctor Who Season 15. Furthermore, K9 is one of the handful of characters who has enjoyed renewed success in the modern era of Doctor Who, making multiple appearances in the main series and its spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. His co-creator Bob Baker (prior to his death) even put plans in place to give K9 his own feature film, and he enjoyed his own TV series in Australia.
However, none of this is to say that K9 is the main focus of Doctor Who Season 15. It is well-remembered for a number of reasons and contains a string of classic tales. Robert Holmes’ ‘The Sun Makers’ is one such story – a cynical and satirical look at the UK tax system, penned out of pure frustration by writer Robert Holmes, who had recently been slapped with a hefty tax bill.
In ‘The Sun Makers,’ the Doctor and Leela arrive on the planet Pluto in the far future. It is now a habitable world, sustained by a series of artificial suns. But its people are oppressed by a brutal tax system which drives some citizens to suicide.
“These taxes…” Leela remarks. “They are like sacrifices to tribal gods?”
“Well, roughly speaking,” the Doctor replies. “But paying tax is more painful.”
And whilst the comedy in this Doctor Who Season 15 story is not to everyone’s taste, it is notable for featuring the actor Michael Keating, who would go on to find fame in Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7. In fact, it was his appearance in ‘The Sun Makers’ which led to his casting as Vila Restal, as the director Pennant Roberts remembered his performance in Doctor Who and recommended him to the production team.
Doctor Who Season 15 also features an epic finale. In ‘The Invasion of Time,’ Gallifrey is besieged by an army of Sontarans, and the Doctor must deal with them. This leads to an amusing and fascinating episode set almost entirely within the TARDIS where the Time Lord is being chased through its previously unseen passages and chambers, including the famous TARDIS swimming pool. There is a particularly amusing moment where a Sontaran is taken out by one of the Doctor’s sun loungers!
So Doctor Who Season 15 also contributed to the series’ ongoing lore. The TARDIS’ vastness would be further developed in later stories such as the TV movie, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS,’ and these adventures all have their origin in ‘The Invasion of Time.’ Furthermore, this season finale marked the last appearance of the companion Leela in the Classic series, who would suddenly depart at the end of episode six after falling in love with a Time Lord called Andred.
And if you’ve seen the trailer for the Doctor Who Season 15 Blu-ray set, you will see how it connects to ‘The Invasion of Time.’ Leela is still on Gallifrey, and an old woman, vowing to protect the planet against the might of the Dalek forces. This, in turn, connects to the Gallifrey radio series from Big Finish, which delves further into Leela’s life on the Doctor’s home planet, and acts as a sequel to ‘The Invasion of Time.’
So if you’ve never seen Doctor Who Season 15 before, now is the perfect time to dive in, with all of the episodes available in the Whoniverse on BBC iPlayer.
And if you’re already familiar with Doctor Who Season 15, tell us – which is your favourite adventure from this classic series? Let us know in the comments below.