24.3 – “Delta and The Bannermen”
When The Doctor and Mel become the ten billionth customers at Doddy’s cosmic tollbooth they win a trip to 1959 Disneyland in a space bus filled with shape-changing purple Navarinos and a stowaway Chimeron Queen fleeing with her egg from alien psychopaths, except the bus collides with an AWOL American satellite and gets diverted to a holiday camp in South Wales where rock-n-roll, beekeeping and an interspecies love triangle ensue. Look, have you ever tried to sum up a Cartmel era story in just one sentence? It isn’t easy…
As 1987 hurtled towards its wintry close, it’s a matter of historical record that a lot of Doctor Who fans were Not Happy. After the unimaginable double whammy of an 18 month hiatus followed by the acrimonious sacking of a Doctor, a return to some kind of – any kind of – form was necessary for fandom’s collective dignity to be restored. Instead they’d just been treated to another run of eight largely godawful episodes, featuring the silliest companion ever and a light entertainment Doctor who, while not without a certain winsomeness, was quite blatantly never going to be vying with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker in the public acceptability stakes.
Or to put it another way, Doctor Who seemed irredeemably fucked and a lot of people were watching through their fingers. With less than half the season to go at this point, could the curiously titled “Delta and The Bannermen” somehow salvage things? And then, within a few minutes of the opening credits, out prances a spangly Ken Dodd and some comedy aliens resembling (in their true form) a cross between the Michelin Man and a purple turd and I’m sure a huge sigh went up across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom; abandon hope, all is lost.
Funnily enough, though, this was the story during which I became a fan. Having preferred the muddier charms of Robin Of Sherwood for the whole of the mid-eighties, I mark “Delta…” as the point from which I would never again voluntarily miss a Doctor Who episode. This is despite my clear memories of school friends pouring scorn on Sylvester McCoy, “Paradise Towers” and Richard Briers at the time. Maybe I just had a thing for an underdog, but surely “Delta…” must have had at least something else going for it? Pleasingly, a rewatch largely vindicates “Delta and The Bannermen”: a lot of things that may have seemed exasperating at the time, when people were desperate for an old-school trad classic to prove that the show they fell in love with wasn’t lost and gone forever, now seem less objectionable in the light of the 2005 show. In particular, the Russell T Davies playbook was chock full of moves straight out of “Delta and The Bannermen”.
To enumerate just a few:
The length. Amazingly, this is the first 3-episode classic series story since “Planet Of Giants” (and it’s well known that story was originally intended as a four parter). Back in 1987 it felt like we were being shortchanged from our rightful length, but in point of fact three 25-minute episodes is the perfect length for a Doctor Who adventure, providing a neat beginning, middle and end.
The ideas. My god, the sheer density of the ideas! Like the RTD era, which would regularly have too much cool stuff to cram into a mere 45 minutes, resulting in the need to jettison unimportant ballast (like an ending that made sense), Malcolm Kohll’s script just keeps on adding in characters and plotlines until saturation point is reached. Does the story really need odd-couple CIA agents Weissmuller and Hawk to function? What about the mysteriously all-knowing beekeeper, Goronwy? Surely 3 episodes could happily have been filled with just Delta versus the Bannermen, without throwing in a whirlwind holiday romance between an alien queen bee and a Welsh mechanic on top of it? If there’s one thing Andrew Cartmel brought to Doctor Who it was the realisation that, sometimes, more is more. This style of everything-including-the-kitchen-sink Doctor Who may not be to everybody’s tastes but it’s very rarely boring.
The Welsh flavour. Post-2005, this doesn’t seem at all unusual, but at the time Wales was a pretty exotic venue for a Doctor Who adventure. One of my very favourite moments in the adventure is Gavrok staring hatefully at a large map of Wales on his ship’s computer screen.
Because that’s what Doctor Who, by some accounts, does best; mixing the alien with the familiar. “Delta and The Bannermen” could have been set on the Chimeron homeworld instead of Barry Island but then it would have been just another “Time and The Rani” – meaningless events occurring on a planet with a silly name that the viewers are unlikely to care about. It is perhaps a little unfortunate that having Gavrok menacing Earthlings by blowing up their camping equipment, or advancing with appropriate military caution on a pair of tethered goats, obscures the fact that of all the space psychopaths ever to have appeared in Doctor Who, he really is one of the nastiest and best. Anyone who thinks of this story as a low-stakes romp has clearly forgotten the Tollkeeper being cold-bloodedly shot in the back, or the shocking casual murder of a bus-load of alien holiday makers.
So, with a truly great villain, a script with more sheer ideas per square inch than anything since “City Of Death” and inventiveness and fun practically coming out of its ears, why is “Delta and The Bannermen” not considered a classic? Well, here’s the problem. A story like this works really well as a retort to “proper” Doctor Who. Your Daleks and Cybermen and quarries and corridors are all well and good, but it’s certainly worth puncturing the bubble of the type of fan who thinks only that qualifies as real Doctor Who, by forcing the dread space pirates to besiege an episode of Hi-De-Hi instead. Try having some fun for a change, Whovians! You might like it!
But Season 24 is pretty much all critique of old-fashioned Doctor Who and no actual old-fashioned Doctor Who to remind us what we’re critiquing. To his credit, Andrew Cartmel would quickly realise this error and bring back The Doctor’s two most time-honoured foes for Season 25, finally placing the McCoy era in the context of the rest of the show. But for the time being, it still felt like the baby was being thrown out with the bathwater. The TARDIS aside, there’s almost nothing to suggest that “Delta and The Bannermen” is the same show as, say, “Genesis Of The Daleks”. Pertwee’s first two seasons might have gotten away with a clean stylistic break, but Season 24 is no Season 7, alas. “Delta…” is so good in so many ways, but it wasn’t the Doctor Who adventure we were looking for in 1987; and for those who remember how disappointed they felt at the time, it may never be forgiven.
“I can’t condone this foolishness, but then love has never been known for its rationality.” Like the rock’n’roll it joyfully channels, this story relies on exuberance rather than logic to win you over. If the idea of a young Welshman in the 50’s falling in love with an egg-laying alien bee woman makes you a bit furious, then you might want to steer well clear. If though you love the fact that Doctor Who is the only show in the universe with the power to go anywhere and do anything and relish the all too rare occasions when it actually does, then you can join me in giving this a rocking 7/10.
Written and edited by Matthew Marcus
This entry was posted on June 25, 2014 at 8:51 pm and is filed under Classic Who, Season 24 with tags Delta and The Bannermen, Doctor Who, Doctor Who Reviews, Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.