“A miscellany of Melanies could herald the collapse of reality.”
After bidding a fond adieu in absentia for long running companion and aged history professor Evelyn Smythe, the Colin Baker Doctor heads off to pick up his next companion, the erstwhile Melanie Bush.
Unfortunately, this results in a crossing of his own timestream, as an earlier version of the Doctor, fresh from the 1986 Trial of a Timelord, drops Mel off at the same location and time (over her virulent protests).
Why is young computer programmer Mel a tech-ignorant cleaning woman? Why is the head of the town drama production planning a holdup? And why are “time explosions” and dinosaurs wandering around the quaint village of Pease Pottage, Sussex?
“But it’s not just any me, not one of those other fellows with their scarves and frills and (ugh) celery…it’s me me. I’ll be more than capable of handling the situation.”
This is the Mel we never got to see – the introduction (of sorts) we were dropped in on post facto partway through the travesty that was the Trial of a Time Lord.
Inextricably part and parcel of the infamous 1986 return to the airwaves of the televised Doctor Who, The Wrong Doctors is very obviously the work of a particularly clever fan attempting to fill in the gaps and tie up some longstanding loose ends in Eric Saward’s rather flawed jibe at Michael Grade, Mary Whitehouse and the BBC.
“My future self will be fully aware of this and know exactly where to find you. Assuming he’s still disposed to do so…quite how I put up with the constant badgering and carrot based cordials, I really don’t know.”
For those who weren’t there, the Colin Baker reign as TV’s Doctor Who proved hands down to be the most tumultuous and controversial of the entire series.
With an unusually edgy plan for the Doctor and several unhelpfully radical changes to the program itself, script editor Saward and producer John Nathan Turner walked in asking for trouble…and got it, in spades.
Let’s list the major issues here.
“You’re the wrong Doctors, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.”
(in unison): “Story of my lives.”
1. Both the regeneration and first full serial with the new Doctor appeared at the close of the 1984 season. Intended to introduce the new regeneration and leave things on a bit of a cliffhanger to build audience interest, the actual result was that the entire run started off on (and as it happens, ended on) a very wrong foot. Or if you prefer: “Carrot juice? Carrot juice!?!”
“Good luck with the Technicolor Dreamcoat…you could try Brighton, they’ll be casting their summer seasons!”
2. Moving out of a more drab palette under the latter Tom Baker run and the subsequent Peter Davison era, Turner saw fit to spruce things up into a far more brightly lit, color saturated children’s playhouse feel, made all the worse by the increasing use of video over film. The infamous patchwork longcoat was part and parcel of the “new look”, which would continue straight through the McCoy era.
Further on similar lines, there was a strong element of pantomime to the whole affair, in no way moderated by the appearances of such over the top guests as Joan Sims, Ken Dodd, Tony Selby and the campiest go for broke performance ever recorded by Blakes Seven’s own Avon, Paul Darrow. Face it…when the Anthony Ainley version of the Master comes off positively subdued by comparison, you know things have gone off the rails a bit…
“You do seem a little different from my Doctor…more…bolshie.”
“Bolshie? BOLSHIE!?! Revolutionary, perhaps…
Go home, sit tight, liquidize a root vegetable…do some…aerobics. Whatever takes your fancy. I suppose your less Bolshie Doctor should be along presently.”
3. The whole concept pushed the boundaries of Who. The first appearance of the Doctor ended with his attempt to strangle recently recruited companion Peri. The idea, worked out between Colin Baker and John Nathan Turner, was that his would be an “unstable” regeneration, thanks to the Spectrox poisoning Davison received in Caves of Androzani. He was shown as cowering in fear, struggling with an opponent who wound up falling into a vat of acid and even shooting a gun. In sum, there was a strong sense of upending the table to see what comes of it.
As matters progressed, the whole “dancing on glass” feel, where the audience was unsure if their beloved Doctor were in fact mad, if not cowardly or outright villainous, was to modulate into a more stable and warm relation between the Doctor and his companion, and so it goes. We have some hints of this in the Mysterious Planet that opened the season long “Trial”, but as it happened, Colin’s intended take on the (finally stablized) Doctor never came to fruition until the inauguration of the Big Finish audio line.
“Tastes change. My demeanor certainly has. I’d forgotten I could be so…obstreporous.”
4. There were even more changes to the series per se. With audiences long accustomed to stories consisting of four 25 minute episodes*, Saward and Turner made the bizarre decision to change the format to pairs of 45 minute episodes.
An unusual mix of too long (regular Who viewers can anticipate and actually feel where the episode should end, only to have it keep rolling along) and too short (remember, a full 10 minutes were effectively lost in the changeover here), the experiment was decidedly not a success, and when the series returned to air, it reverted to the tried and true original format.
*Earlier Doctors did have tales that ran for six or more, but this was generally a mistake, as the stories tended to drop off and drag through the middle episodes and pick up again at the conclusion.
Needless to say, as every Who historian knows all too well, the series was pulled from the airwaves. Theories as to the actual causes vary, but it’s without question down to the misjudgment of Michael Grade.
“There are no problems – only challenges.”
“Well I look forward to see how you address the challenge of being blown to kingdom come!”
Whether influenced overly by the complaints of “watchdog groups” and “citizens morality” overlords led by Puritanical rabblerousers such as Mary Whitehouse or more pragmatically motivated to utilize funding traditionally earmarked for Who towards his new pet project Eastenders, the bottom line is that it was Grade who made the decision to let the axe drop, however softly couched in terms of “indefinite hiatus”. However rightly or wrongly this move was implemented, history proves his judgment was at least in part correct, as the latter series did in fact debut and become a runaway success that is still in production to this very day. But was it worth pulling Who off air over?
“Repeats…but then I suppose everything’s repeats, for me.”
And so we come to problem 5…which is that when the show did finally return from an unprecedented 18 month hiatus, rather than putting best foot forward, Saward made the catty bungling error to lash out at the Beeb instead.
The season long “Trial of a Time Lord” put the Doctor on trial in direct parallel with how the production of the series itself was put “on trial”, complete with clueless, overbearing overlords of officialdom misreading altered evidence and so forth.
“I was making a joke.”
“Well, that’s a matter of opinion…”
It was rather childish, and resulted in some pretty iffy material – bar the more simplistic “old dark house in space” approach of Pip & Jane Baker’s Terror of the Vervoids (which was an entertaining flashback to the likes of Tom Baker’s Ark in Space and featured the Avengers’ own Honor Blackman, perhaps the only guest in the late period Who not to chew the scenery like a mad dog…), the entire season is quite dull and dreary, with only Nabil Shaban’s Sil and the ever-amusing Brian Blessed offering cold comfort for some of the (I’m sorry, but) lousiest stories of Classic Who.
And worse, Saward’s apparent inherent nastiness was still present and accounted for in the scripting – Peri gets turned into a bird creature and winds up both possessed and then quite dead at the end of the first serial!
Deciding retroactively that this was a mistake, John Nathan Turner went back and inserted an even more disturbing “fate worse than death” later in the trial implying that Peri actually lived on, doomed to married life with the madly blustering Blessed – a case of making a bad situation even worse if there ever was one!
“Well done, Doctor. I knew I could rely on you.”
“Not at all, Doctor. A pleasure to be working with you.”
“I’ve heard of self congratulation, but this is ridiculous!”
And so we return to the Wrong Doctors, already in progress. Things really take a turn for the absurd as the mystery begins to clear, and the involvement of the horrible Mardaks becomes apparent:
“An entire species dedicated to one of the most despicable occupations in the entire universe.”
“Robbers? Arms Dealers? Pirates?”
“No, Mel. Business consultants.”
Much akin to the subsequent month’s Spaceport Fear, The Wrong Doctors taps into the native inanity of accepted jargon – in this case the most ridiculous and obfuscating of all forms of communication, business lingo.
Just as the Business faction on Tantane spaceport spoke in terms of downsizing and investor relations for more direct (and life threatening) military applications, here the Mardaks talk in terms of new affiliates, client relations and project objectives for global annexation and worse. Sadly, it’s not all that far distant from the real thing, in a world of power brokers, hostile takeovers and multinational corporate hegemony over global politics as well as economy. It’s both timely and apropos as well as being quite wryly amusing.
“Two of you and two of me, this could get confusing.”
“Not at all. This is the Mel I deposited here for our future self to collect, let’s call her Melanie A, shall we? And the younger version is Mel B.”
“What if another B turns up. Who’s she, Mel C?”
“No, That cannot be allowed to happen.”
“Yes…wrong decade for the Spice Girls.”
I’ve already made my apologia for Bonnie Langford’s unfairly reviled Mel (and her complete reversal of fortunes in the Big Finish audio arena), so all I’ll note here is that the dual roles for both Baker and Langford provide quite an entertaining romp.
While Colin fares a bit better on distinguishing his more abrasive televised Doctor persona with the more likeably professorial version of his more recent adventures, it’s a bit difficult to…well, tell a Mel from a Mel.
Even so, this story is just about the silliest Colin Baker’s Doctor has been involved with since 2001’s The One Doctor. Sadly, there’s no port-a-loo ‘Stardis’ this time around, but the script is far more involved and clever here, even managing to add a pinch of drama to the affair just to keep things interesting.
Well deserved kudos therefore to Matt Fitton, whose witty, continuity attentive and appropriately sardonic scripting provides such an excellent footing for Baker and Langford to strut their stuff as deftly as befits two veteran performers of this caliber and level of experience. Big Finish head honcho Nick Briggs directs with consummate skill – really this one’s a winner all round.
I’m not sure how much of Simon Robinson’s score really impacted matters on a pure background music level, but that damn Pease Pottage song (itself a slight variation on a familiar children’s nursery rhyme) will be stuck in your head for weeks, whether you like it or not…
Suffice to say, if your last experience of Mel (or Colin Baker’s Doctor, for that matter) dates back to the John Nathan Turner era, lend an ear this way, you may be quite surprised.