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The Final Nail - Season 26: Success or Failure?

By Matthew Morris

Recently, I re-watched The Curse of Fenric, Ghost Light and Survival and was reminded of their excellence. The first two of these adventures stand as wonderful individual works in their own right, not only just as good Doctor Who. The Curse of Fenric contains many meaningful and thought-provoking ideas (the over-riding being the value of faith, in whatever it may be the importance of standing up for what you believe in), and also had some dramatic confrontations between the Doctor and Ace, which shifted and deepened the emphasis on their relationship. In particular, Ace became perhaps the most believable companion in Doctor Who history - whilst perpetuating the traditional role of the Doctor Who companion (that of getting the Doctor to explain things to the audience), she managed to define this role with hard-hitting clarity, forcing the audience to become thoroughly involved and emotionally transfixed. With Fenric, Doctor Who broke new ground, and Ian Briggs crafted a script worthy of literary merit.

Ghost Light shares the same high quality as Fenric. The script deals with a vast amount of strong characters, bringing new ones in with ease when the old have served their purpose - i.e., as soon as the Reverend is disposed of, the Inspector is put into action. Littered throughout are references to change and growth - indeed the plot itself ultimately revolves around this theme. This strong symbolism serves to unify the story. Each character evolves and changes - including Ace - which again echoes the plot. I'm sure even critics of' the story would agree that this is a remarkable achievement, especially given that there are so many characters involved. Judging both these stories on their literary merits, they are marvellous, combining solid plot with strong character development. But...

When the general public is offered Doctor Who, they expect crumby acting, plastic walls, laughable effects, a lot of running and explosions, screaming companions, idiotic Doctors, mad scientists and clichéd plots. For example let me refer you to the bulk of the Jon Pertwee era - although I still enjoyed them, one is forced to admit that these stories rarely tested new water, and at face value are certainly lax on the intellectual side.

For the general public, such stories offer escapism, a light-hearted story that one can relax in front of. They don't require thought (though if one chooses to look for deeper meanings the search can often be fruitful), and they don't require a diploma in philosophy or psychology. They are just there and they are easy to enjoy. There's nothing wrong in this - for many this is what Doctor Who is supposed to be. In reality, we all know that Doctor Who is many things, summed up brilliantly by Kate Orman in TSV 33.

This approach to 'veg-TV' led to season after season of high ratings. The trend towards an adult audience was set back in 1976 with The Deadly Assassin, but I don't think anyone could have expected it would end with pieces such as The Curse of Fenric or Ghost Light. After all, even with the gothic masterpiece The Talons of Weng-Chiang, we were still treated to lax character development and a fairly loose plot. (The less said about the effects, the better). Nothing as in depth as Fenric or Ghost Light had ever been attempted before.

Less intellectual plots coincided with high ratings, whilst Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric coincided with low ratings. Many fans believe the actual cause of Season 26's low ratings was not the stories themselves, but the fact that they were screened against Coronation Street. But 1989 was not the first year that Doctor Who was placed against the Street, but fared worse than before. In addition, The Daleks in 1964 (with awful acting, dragging plot and a hideous forest set) received a ratings average of 9 million and a peak of 10.5 million.

Ghost Light, by contrast, scraped 4.2 million. These ratings are surely not entirely the consequence of scheduling. They do however indicate that the quality of the stories themselves did not appeal to Mr & Mrs General Public, who want action; at its most basic level just 25 minutes of escapism.

But to claim that Season 26 failed because of a greater in depth emphasis on scripts is to over-look the other half of the season - Battlefield and Survival are hardly works of genius. Battlefield rated over half a million viewers less than Ghost Light. Season 26 actually offered quite a mixture, but still failed to capture the attention of the general public audience. If Coronation Street cannot be blamed (and I maintain that it cannot), then I believe that Doctor Who has fallen prey to the public perception that 30 years is too long.

Before I'm met with a barrage of complaints, I am fully aware that there should be plenty of life in the old bird yet. The diversity of the series is limitless, so therefore the lifespan of the series should be likewise. But people don't watch Doctor Who any more because they've heard that it's crap. Perhaps if they actually watched it, they might discover why it is that there is such an extensive fan following for the show - but this is not relevant. What the public appears to believe is that the show has burnt itself out. Don't blame the BBC for not bringing the show back they're still raking in the profits, probably more now than ever before.

Season 26's horrendous ratings were not the fault of style or scheduling, but the result of the public becoming bored with a 30-year-old show, in spite of endless variety. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter what the quality of the stories, the ratings could not have been improved. This provokes the question - why has Coronation Street lasted so long, with no real change of emphasis or innovation? Perhaps if the BBC had made Season 26 the same as those that had gone before it, the ratings would have improved, but if this were the answer, what would be the point? A 30-year-old show with no internal evolution; it might receive better ratings, but is that really all that counts?

If Season 26 was the final nail in the coffin, then let Doctor Who - the TV series, not fandom - rest in peace. In its lifetime, much has been accomplished and I for one believe it went out in style.

This item appeared in TSV 35 (September 1993).