The BBC doesn’t have the best record for celebrating the men and women who made Doctor Who the programme it is today. Some of that comes down to the fact that the show’s never really been a ‘creator led’ property. Star Trek had Gene Roddenbery, a visionary powerhouse who dominated the show’s fortunes, for good and ill, until the end of his life. We’re only now entering a post-Lucas Star Wars era. Doctor Who, by contrast, always had a rotating door of script editors, writers and even lead actors.
Sidney Newman, Verity Lambert, Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks, Donald Tosh, Gerry Davis, Derrick Sherwin, Eric Saward and dozens more all played their part in breathing life into Doctor Who. With the milestone achieved, it’s easy to forget that a show doesn’t last fifty years without a continual stream of new ideas, talent and creativity – and also that some eras of a long-running production are defined as much by their production team as their cast.
Every producer, writer and script editor left their mark on Doctor Who – some creating characters or concepts that last even now, some fifty-three years since the first airing. But if I had to pick the man who casts the largest shadow, that man would be Robert Holmes.
Robert Holmes first wrote for Doctor Who back in the dying days of the Troughton era, contributing The Krotons and The Space Pirates to plug gaps in the running order after other stories fell through. Though neither serial is remembered fondly, there are hints of the blend of dry humour and darkness that would underpin Holmes’ later work. From there, he went on to contribute seventy-three episodes as a writer, and oversaw three years of the Tom Baker era as script editor. Of course, that’s not all he wrote. Holmes contributed stories to Blakes’ 7, Bergerac and many others, and worked as a script editor for yet more.
A Storytelling Legacy
Chances are, if you watched the original run of Doctor Who, you watched a serial Robert Holmes wrote or script-edited – after all, his work ran from Troughton through to almost the very end of Colin Baker’s run (he passed away before completing the final story arc of Trial of a Timelord). Even if you never watched the original run of Doctor Who, you’ll have seen the new iterations of his creations. Holmes created the Sontarans and the Autons. The Zygons came to life during his tenure as script editor. He masterminded the transition of the Master from Roger Delgado to Peter Pratt, establishing that the Master too could regenerate. And if we don’t see the White Guardian in New Who before too much longer, I’ll be amazed.
Holmes’ scripts are clever. And I don’t mean that they’re written to showcase the man’s intelligence. They’re full of subtle humour and satirical nods, supporting characters who leap off the screen fully-formed through sharp writing and carefully-crafted banter. And there’s darkness – more darkness than people tend to remember.
The Two Doctors – a light-hearted romp in the bright environs of Seville – has much of its screen time dominated by the prospect of cannibalism. The Talons of Weng-Chiang takes the concept of Jack the Ripper and labours to make something even more horrific (ignore the giant rat, that’s not Holmes’ fault). Power of Kroll draws some uncomfortable parallels with colonialism – to the point that it’s a relief when the giant squid monster starts eating people. The Deadly Assassin and Caves of Androzani are both rightly remembered as fast-paced, brutal stories – both receiving condemnation at the time for subverting a children’s show. (I was six when I watched the latter. Don’t really recall being terrified.)
Holmes’ Doctor Who is the show at its best. His dialogue was consistently witty without being over the top. His settings were endlessly inventive. He informed without speaking down to his audience, and he was never afraid of embracing darkness.
Architect of Gothic
Shouldn’t be a surprise then that Holmes set a tone during his time as script editor. Along with then-producer Philip Hinchcliffe, he ushered what is commonly referred to as the ‘gothic’ era of Doctor Who into existence.
The span of the gothic era changes depending on who you ask, but for me it runs from Terror of the Zygons (see?) through to Image of the Fendahl. These stories are darker in tone, and in production, evoking classic horror more than the brightly-cast Pertwee and early Baker stories where the series was much more sci-fi James Bond, in the manner of the Avengers, the Man from U.N.C.L.E and the Prisoner. They’re gloomy, oppressive and constantly remind the viewer that the true enemy lies just beyond the lamplight, rather than in chrome battleships descending from space.
Pretty much every story in this period evokes or parallels a classic horror tale (often with a Hammer Horror-esque name). Terror of the Zygons is a changeling story. Planet of Evil is Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde. The beautifully-named Brain of Morbius has a Frankenstein monster as its central conceit. And so on. But – and this is important – none of these stories are copies of their forebears. They take tone and inspiration from what came before, and then tell stories of their own.
Equally interesting is that the tales never lose sight of Doctor Who’s sci-fi heritage. The Zygons may be changelings, but they’re also aliens who want to take over the world because their own planet was destroyed. The titular Planet of Evil is the true adversary, not the dual personalities of Professor Sorenson – and it’s not evil as such, but a vehicle to touch on themes of scientific arrogance and even environmental issues. And so on.
But am I giving Holmes too much credit? After all, he only wrote four complete stories within the gothic era, and was ‘merely’ the script editor on the rest. Perhaps, but interviews are very clear that Holmes and Hinchcliffe were incredibly hands-on during the gothic era, with Holmes often altering (literally rewriting, in the case of Pyramids of Mars) the submitted scripts to match the vision of what the show could be. And I confess, I’m torn.
While I admire what Holmes and Hinchcliffe achieved, I don’t know that I could have been a writer for that era of the show. Though Holmes is no longer with us, interviews with Hinchcliffe and some of the writers (a few of who still sound a little bruised, decades on) suggest that the editorial process was considerably more invasive than was the norm.
But the results stand for themselves.
Every long-running art form has its golden age, a period that not only outshines that which came before and after, but also secured its place in popular memory. James Bond endures because of Sean Connery. No matter how badly Star Trek loses its way, the memories of the original series endures. Same with Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. In the original Sherlock Holmes canon, there are works that are ‘more’ Conan Doyle than others.
The gothic era is Doctor Who at its apogee, not only because Tom Baker was at his most brilliant, but because the tone of the show was at its most consistent, blending horror, sci-fi and historical settings in truly imaginative ways. Holmes isn’t to be credited for the design and direction of those serials, and the overarching themes of the era are as much Hinchcliffe’s creation as his. But Holmes’ passions show through in every single story – in the dialogue, in the pacing and in the craftsmanship. I don’t think it’s overstatement to say that Doctor Who endures on our screens, at least in part, because of the gothic era’s quality.
But I’m going to end, not with my words, but with those of another member of the (more recent) Doctor Who production team. It’s not often you’ll find me quoting Russell T Davies, but these words, given during an interview with the Telegraph (also not something I usually quote), sum up my own thoughts:
‘Take The Talons of Weng Chiang, for example. Watch episode one. It’s the best dialogue ever written. It’s up there with Dennis Potter. By a man called Robert Holmes. When the history of television drama comes to be written, Robert Holmes won’t be remembered at all because he only wrote genre stuff. And that, I reckon, is a real tragedy.’