Doctor Who Season 20 marked the programme’s 20th anniversary, and saw a slew of familiar faces return to the Whoniverse.
By 1983, the producer John Nathan-Turner had been working on Doctor Who (in one capacity or another) since 1969. And although he had only been producing the programme for two years, as Doctor Who Season 20 approached he knew that he wanted to make it as worthy a celebration as possible for the show that he loved. With this in mind, he made the mysterious promise to fans that every single story in the upcoming series would feature a returning baddie.
And few people could have expected that the first story of Doctor Who Season 20 – ‘Arc of Infinity’ – would see the return of the renegade Time Lord Omega. In Who lore, he was something of an obscurity; he had only featured in one serial back in 1972, and would have been an unknown figure to the younger fans of the 1980s. And yet, in the ensuing years, the character of Omega has passed into legend, even getting name-checked in Chris Chibnall’s script for ‘The Timeless Children‘ in 2020.
This is because Omega is a pivotal character in Doctor Who history, being one of the founding fathers of the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey and the one who was responsible for the Time Lords’ time travel technology. To have him return as the main adversary in Doctor Who Season 20’s opening story made perfect sense and was a bold beginning to the anniversary celebrations. And the serial’s location filming in Amsterdam was the cherry on the cake.
The following story – ‘Snakedance’ – brought back a villain that many viewers would have been familiar with. The Mara had debuted in the previous year’s ‘Kinda’ – a villainous, snake-like creature that could live inside people’s minds, and possess them. Indeed, ‘Snakedance’ used this detail to justify the Mara’s return, establishing that the creature was still residing in the mind of the Doctor’s companion Tegan.
Then there was the famous Black Guardian trilogy, which comprised ‘Mawdryn Undead,’ ‘Terminus’ and ‘Enlightenment.’ Again, the Black Guardian may not have been instantly recognisable to viewers of Doctor Who Season 20; he had last been seen in 1979’s Key to Time series when Tom Baker was the Doctor, and for this new trio of adventures John Nathan-Turner even brought back the Black Guardian’s original actor, Valentine Dyall.
This time, the Black Guardian was simply on a mission to exterminate the Doctor, and to do this he enlisted a schoolboy called Turlough to do his bidding. Thus, throughout these three stories, Turlough is actually on a mission to murder the Doctor – a unique idea that was chillingly realised by Turlough actor Mark Strickson.
This Doctor Who Season 20 trilogy was also notable for the return of the character of the Brigadier, a sort of companion to the Doctor and leader of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) that the Doctor had worked for in the early 70s (or was it the 80s…?) He returned in the trilogy’s opening story ‘Mawdryn Undead’ – a complex, timey-wimey tale worthy of a Steven Moffat script. Again, younger viewers may not have known who he was, but his inclusion was a real treat for those people who had been watching since the Patrick Troughton era, the Brigadier having made his debut in 1968’s ‘The Web of Fear.’
At the same time, this Doctor Who Season 20 trilogy also saw the departure of the Doctor’s companion Nyssa, who was played by Sarah Sutton. She had been travelling with the Doctor since 1981’s ‘Logopolis,’ and opted to leave the TARDIS in the closing moments of ‘Terminus’ in order to stay and help the ship’s occupants the Lazars.
And speaking of the ship, ‘Terminus’ is also notable for re-using some of the sets from the classic SF horror film Alien, which had premiered just a few years before in 1979.
Of course, by the time this Doctor Who Season 20 trilogy concluded, Turlough realised that he had been misled and ultimately turned on the Black Guardian and became the Doctor’s official companion – this time without the murderous intent! And by the time the following story ‘The King’s Demons’ came around, he was a well-established member of the TARDIS crew.
This turned out to be the final story of Doctor Who Season 20, although it wasn’t originally planned that way (more on that in a moment.) And it’s a short one at two x 25 minute episodes which saw the Doctor trying to thwart the Master‘s plan to prevent King John from signing the Magna Carta.
And as if the return of the Master weren’t significant enough, ‘The King’s Demons’ also introduced a new companion in the form of Kamelion – a shape-shifting droid that was portrayed by an actual robot (i.e. not a man in a suit.) It was an ambitious idea, and one that sadly never came to fruition owing to the technical limitations of the time. For this reason, Kamelion was restricted to a brief appearance at the end of Doctor Who Season 20, and just the one story in Season 21 (plus a deleted scene in ‘The Awakening.’)
This may have seemed rather a hurried end to the series, and as mentioned previously ‘The King’s Demons’ wasn’t the original conclusion to Doctor Who Season 20. Script editor Eric Saward had actually planned for the Doctor’s greatest enemy the Daleks to round off the anniversary celebrations in a four part epic called ‘The Return.’ However, this story was halted in its tracks by an electricians’ strike at the BBC, and it was subsequently pushed back to the following year where (after a few minor rewrites) it re-emerged as the epic ‘Resurrection of the Daleks.’
But the Daleks did still get their moment in the 20th anniversary spotlight. They joined a whole host of other baddies in the celebration adventure ‘The Five Doctors’ which came just a few months after the conclusion of Doctor Who Season 20. This movie-length story saw the return of Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker (after a fashion) as they took on Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti, the Master and corrupt Time Lords in the dreaded Death Zone on Gallifrey. In addition, a number of former companions returned to the fold, including Carole Ann Ford as Susan Foreman and Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith.
Excitingly, three different versions of ‘The Five Doctors’ are going to be included on the Doctor Who Season 20 collection when it’s released later this year. In the meantime, tell us – what is your favourite story from this classic series? And which returning baddie were you most excited to see? Let me know in the comments below!
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