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Delta and the Bannermen

A Holiday-Camping we will go

By Graham Howard

The Bottom Ten No. 10
DWM Score: 50.78%
DWM Placing: 150th

“I never thought I'd seen a worse television programme in my life watching Paradise Towers - until I saw Delta and the Bannermen”. So said one reviewer of the story back in 1987. And he wasn't alone. It is fair to say that not a lot of fans liked the story on its transmission, and its placing in the poll would suggest little has changed in that regard. I do agree with many of the criticisms levelled at Delta and the Bannermen - just about every aspect of the production seems flawed in some respect. Nevertheless, for me it remains the most watchable story of the mostly dreadful Season 24.

So what is it that makes this one of the least liked stories in twenty-six years of Doctor Who? I believe part of the problem is that Delta and the Bannermen is cluttered with items that make it more closely resemble an episode of The Goodies than traditional Who. Doctor Who stretches credulity at times, but not like this - consider these: (1) an inter-planetary toll-collector (played by British comedian Ken Dodd) awards The Doctor and Mel a prize for being the ten billionth visitor to pass through his toll collection point. (2) The prize is a holiday for two on a scheduled tour with ‘Nostalgia Trips’ back in time to 1959 Disneyland, Earth. (3) Their fellow holidaymakers are a tour party of Navarinos ("squat, wrinkly, purple creatures"). A “transform-ation arch” turns them into humans for the trip. (4) Their mode of transport is a spacecraft made up to look like an old bus - even on the inside! (5) Meanwhile, on Earth, a pair of incompetent, bumbling American Government agents are wandering around Wales when they get asked to track a US satellite, just launched from Cape Canaveral, USA (they have a small telescope which they regularly aim into clear blue sky!). Why two ill-equipped agents in Wales would be asked to track a satellite is not explained. (6) On its way to Earth the aforementioned bus crashes into the aforementioned satellite. With the Doctor's help (he is following them in the TARDIS), the bus avoids crashing - but is damaged, and lands in a holiday camp in Wales (what a coincidence!). But that is not all: (7) Bees apparently converse and are intelligent. (8) Alien green liquids, when swallowed by humans, cause them to change species (not become sick)...

In addition to unbelievable plot elements, there are many occasions where characters don't behave in a believable manner. For example, Billy sees a gooey green alien baby and reacts as if it is an everyday occurrence. The U.S. agents, Weismuller and Hawk, are unbelievable full-stop (and why doesn't Gavrok kill them??). The Doctor seems completely unconcerned at the concept of time-travel joy-rides (and at the temporal havoc they could potentially cause). Why do bounty hunters speak with clichéd foreign accents?

“Actually, I think I may have gone a little too far.”
- The Doctor

Humour is all very well, but to create drama, characters must still behave in a way that is consistent with a programme's established ‘reality boundaries’ - however loosely defined or fluid. Likewise, if something outrageous happens in Doctor Who, it must be made believable within the context of the ‘reality’ through which the viewer sees it, or else it becomes farcical. Even comedy science fiction like The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Red Dwarf will normally acknowledge limits to believability (the infinite improbability drive is a classic example from Hitch-Hiker's of an implausible concept and an impossible situation being made ‘believable’). With Delta and the Bannermen there is none of that. It is as if writer Malcolm Kohll (or Andrew Cartmel?) just thought he could throw ridiculous things into the plot with no explanation, everyone would have a laugh, and that would be that. Faced with this, the only recourse available to the viewer is to treat the whole thing as a whimsical, light-hearted romp. Which could have worked. But Kohll and the production team went too far. The result is that when the plot calls for a solemn moment, say a life threatening situation, it is difficult to take it seriously, let alone to derive any dramatic tension or excitement from the threat.

But there are some positives in Delta and the Bannermen.

The main plot itself is a fairly routine tale of good versus evil. The Bannermen (in black!) have wiped out the Chimeron race, except for Delta and her baby (in white!). The Bannermen, led by Gavrok, are determined to complete this genocide. They spend the duration of the programme attempting to track Delta down and kill her and the child. Of note, plot components (1) to (7) listed above could have been deleted quite easily without any loss to this general premise.

Delta and the Bannermen begins with a 2-3 minute sequence of the final battle between the Chimerons and the Bannermen, and this basically sets up the story for the subsequent action. Stylistically it is quite unlike the rest of the story. Gritty, dramatic and one of the more effectively-staged battle sequences in the programme's history (and, of course, partly cut by TVNZ!). Even Keff McCulloch's 'no holds barred' approach to incidental music in this story seemed appropriate in these scenes.

The main characters also help make Delta and the Bannermen more palatable than the other stories of the 24th season.

Don Henderson revels in his role as Gavrok, the evil leader of the Bannermen, but unlike some of the other characters in this story, plays it totally straight-faced, easily communicating a hatred of the Chimeron race (making his tactical stupidity a little less noticeable). Oddly, the exact cause of his extreme hatred is never explained.

Sara Griffiths' portrayal of the character of Ray was a highlight of the story for me. Apparently unfazed by the odd situation confronting the holiday camp, Ray is shown to be resourceful, capable and loyal. These traits are combined with a human emotional vulnerability, and perhaps naivety that, taken together, would have made her a perfect companion - to my mind a far more ‘natural’ character than Ace. I understand the production team did consider this as a possibility, and her partnership with the Doctor on several occasions in this story demonstrated the potential. As an added bonus, it would have given Mel a more believable exit. The portrayal of ‘unrequited love’ between Ray and Billy (who is infatuated with Delta) makes for a touching undercurrent to the main action. In particular, Ray's snubbing by Billy at the dance, and the Doctor's hint of compassion towards her predicament (resulting in their dance together!) is a delight.

The seventh Doctor and Mel fit comfortably into the holiday camp setting. I've never cared for either character but, in this story, the characterisations seem appropriate, and the actors' portrayals effective (although they go and risk spoiling it with lines like “I don't know much about crystalline structures, but that looks about cooked” (Mel), or “woe betide any man who breaches its [white flag's] integrity!” (the Doctor)). However, other characters also suffer from similarly weak-sounding lines.

Belinda Mayne seemed to be unnecessarily emotionally aloof from her portrayal of Delta. This was presumably a deliberate move on the part of the production team, in order to accentuate her alien nature and/or royal standing. The result was a kind of emotional flatness. For example, Delta seemed largely unmoved that her race has been wiped out. No grief, anger or distress. Nor were there any overt expressions of attraction or affection towards Billy. Yet in the novelisation, Malcolm Kohll has them “drowning in the pools of each other's eyes” (say what?!). I never sensed a mutual attraction in the television episodes.

Delta and the Bannermen certainly isn't my idea of what makes good Who. Nevertheless, it is possible for me to find enjoyment in Delta, perhaps because, as I have explained, there are certain ‘mitigating factors’ that allow me to tolerate, if not overlook, the cringe-worthy aspects.

P.S. For something genuinely funny, I recommend the bloopers/party tape put together by the Delta and the Bannermen production team!

#9 : The Gunfighters

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: Delta and the Bannermen