First broadcast in 1979, Doctor Who Season 17 is a firm favourite among fans. What is it about this series that makes it so special?
For many people, much of the appeal of Doctor Who Season 17 is Douglas Adams. In 1979, his writing career was taking off thanks to the success of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And because of this, his job as Doctor Who script editor was coming to an end – but not before he’d had time to contribute some of the series’ most beloved serials.
He’d already penned ‘The Pirate Planet‘ the year before, but Adams is best remembered in Doctor Who Season 17 for co-writing the classic story ‘City of Death.’ Set in contemporary Paris, this adventure is often considered to be one of the greatest Doctor Who stories of all time; its punchy script – together with lush location filming in Paris itself – came together to make a quintessential adventure. Moreover, the serial sees Tom Baker at the height of his powers as the Fourth Doctor, treading the fine line between whimsical clown and Time Lord hero.
At the same time, Doctor Who Season 17 achieved some of the series’ highest-ever viewing figures, with ‘City of Death’ part four pulling in an astonishing 16.1 million viewers. Admittedly, this may have had something to do with the fact that its rival channel ITV was on strike, but even then there’s no denying that this period of Doctor Who was one of the most successful ever. Indeed, such was the popularity of the Fourth Doctor that he is still one of the first actors people think of when they talk about the show – usually because of his iconic scarf (which we sell, by the way – just saying.)
Doctor Who Season 17’s opening story was equally well-received, again seeing record viewing figures that may or may not have had something to do with the ITV strike. In fact, Terry Nation’s ‘Destiny of the Daleks‘ is the most-watched Dalek story of all time, with an average of 13.5 million people tuning in across its four episodes. And whilst it might not be regarded as the greatest Dalek story ever, it is notable for the return of the creatures’ wicked creator Davros, as well as the introduction of their android rivals the Movellans, who would become a firm staple in Doctor Who canon.
Doctor Who Season 17 is also notable for being the first to feature the regeneration of a companion. In the opening scenes of ‘Destiny of the Daleks,’ the Doctor’s companion Romana is seen cycling through a selection of bodies as she searches for a good fit. Again, this moment owes much to script editor Douglas Adams, who penned this sequence to accommodate the new actor Lalla Ward – although its comic effect remains the subject of debate to this day.
In fact, popular as it is, Doctor Who Season 17 still proves divisive among fans. Not everybody appreciates the comedic elements that are present throughout its stories, and one serial – ‘The Creature from the Pit’ – often receives criticism for its supposed inability to take itself seriously. For example, the eponymous creature featured questionable tentacles that some have likened to male sexual organs, and the moment where Tom Baker blew into one in an attempt to communicate with the creature was, for some, a bridge too far.
Equally, there are times in Doctor Who Season 17 when the Fourth Doctor doesn’t seem to be taking things as seriously as he should. ‘The Creature from the Pit’ is another good example of this; there is a moment when the Doctor’s life is immediately threatened, and he responds by complaining that the creature is standing on his scarf.
But for the most part, the balance between whimsy and drama is maintained. This is particularly noticeable in the Doctor Who Season 17 finale ‘Shada.’ Again written by Douglas Adams, it is similar in tone to ‘City of Death’ and sees the Doctor and Romana pay a visit to Cambridge in the autumn (or is it the spring?) to visit one of the Doctor’s old tutors. And like ‘City of Death,’ the serial benefitted from gorgeous location filming, with the Doctor Who team taking to the streets of the historic city.
However, it’s fair to say that ‘Shada’ has become one of Doctor Who Season 17’s most infamous serials. This is because it was left unfinished; strike action at the BBC stopped the production team from completing all the studio work, and the serial was shelved in 1979. As such, it has become something of a legend among Doctor Who fans – perhaps because they will never truly know how great ‘Shada’ could have been.
That being said, many attempts have been made to complete it over the years, the most recent being the 2017 animation which reunited the original cast. This special release also contained ‘Shada’s existing footage, which was combined with the animated sequences to produce a feature length adventure.
Doctor Who Season 17 also marked the end of an era. It was the last to be produced by Graham Williams, and the last to be script edited by Douglas Adams. Change was in the air, and for some it came not a moment too soon. The new producer John Nathan-Turner was keen to clamp down on the comedy, and by the time the series returned in the autumn of 1980, it was a very different show, grounded in gritty scientific realism with slick special effects and a new electronic soundtrack. Doctor Who would never be the same again.
And whilst opinion is still divided as to how successful the humour in Doctor Who Season 17 was, there’s no denying that it is one of the most memorable seaons in the show’s history, with serials such as ‘City of Death,’ ‘Shada’ and even ‘The Horns of Nimon’ still generating discussion to this day.
What is your favourite moment from Doctor Who Season 17? Let me know in the comments below.
Doctor Who scarf – order now from the Lovarzi shop!