Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Random Who Report: Delta and the Bannermen (1987)
The 24th season of Doctor Who was produced under trying circumstances. The BBC held off on formally commissioning the series until the last minute, giving producer John Nathan Turner and new script editor Andrew Cartmel very little time to select and prepare scripts. The sixth Doctor, Colin Baker, had been unceremoniously sacked, and BBC head Michael Grade was still leaning on the staff to make the show less dark and more kid-friendly. And to top it off, they were stuck with a season of fourteen twenty-five minute episodes, meaning very little time to actually tell stories.
"Delta and the Bannermen" is not a particularly bad story, but is brought down by a number of problems. It's too short to ever properly explain itself, too chintzy to really resonate, and unabashedly embraces a pantomime feel that, well, is an acquired taste. At the same time, there's a surrealist charm to parts of it, and perhaps we sci-fi fans are a little too sensitive to our media not taking itself seriously enough. If nothing else it is unique.
The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companion Mel (the ever chirpy Bonnie Langford) stop by an intergalactic toll station only to be informed that they've won a vacation to Disneyland in the 50s, courtesy a time-and-space tour group travelling on a spaceship shaped like a bus. Sneaking on board the tour is Delta (Belinda Mayne), queen of the Chimerons, a race being systematically wiped out by the sinister mercenaries the Bannermen, for… some reason. The time and space bus hits a Sputnik-stand-in satellite, and crash lands outside a Welsh holiday camp. The alien tour group, all disguised as humans anyway, hide out among the holiday makers as the captain tries to repair the ship, while Delta strikes up a kind of friendship/romance with local greaser and amateur rocker Billy (David Kinder), much to the consternation of his smitten childhood friend Ray (Sara Griffiths.) Ray and the Doctor discover that the Bannermen have snuck an agent onto the estate, and upon discovering that Delta is there, they quickly land an attack force. In the meantime Delta has an egg that's hatched, producing a young Chimeron princess who is rapidly growing.
Also there is some business with two American agents (one of whom, played by comedian Stubby Kaye, inconspicuously wears a Yankees jacket and baseball cap the entire time) looking for the downed satellite, but don't even get me started on that.
For its first third, "Delta and the Bannermen" unfolds like many Who stories- weird stuff happens and the Doctor has to figure out what's what. But just when we reach a point where Delta is about to explain to Mel what's happening, the camera cuts away, and for the rest of the story's running time we have to infer what the backstory is based on what little snatches of it we get in the midst of constant running about across the Welsh countryside. Certain key points, like what the Bannermen are, why they want the Chimerons dead, and how the Chimerons hope to survive with a genetic diversity of one queen, are never explained, which turns the story into a very broad and generic good vs. evil plot, seeming to run on pantomime rules. The Bannermen are the villains because they are mean violent guys and are run by a mustachioed brute (Don Henderson) with horrible table manners.
For the most part, this feels like a reaction to the BBC's fuss about the levels of violence in the program and desire for "less horror, more humour." While the previous season seemed to attempt to meet Michael Grade halfway, that apparently wasn't enough and now we get people dressed in glittery outfits running around to electronic riffs on "Devil's Galop" years before the theme was appropriated by Sir Digby Chicken Caesar. One can almost imagine John Nathan Turner (who was now producing because the BBC wouldn't let him go anywhere else) shouting "Is this what you want? Are you happy now?!" while showing his superiors rushes of Ken Dodd prancing about in a pink ticket-taker's uniform.
In fairness, there may be more than pure bitter resignation at work here. At points the story's stubborn refusal to explain itself turns the whole thing into a sort of meta Doctor Who story, an abstraction of what Doctor Who is. Just as Sergio Leone reduced the Western to men in dusters riding in the desert and fighting for reasons that in the end didn't matter, "Delta and the Bannermen" is a story where a hero protects good aliens from bad aliens for stakes that are never adequately defined in a struggle that seems to turn on the most arbitrary of plot points. Malcom Kohll, Chris Clough, and company appear to want to push beyond wacky comedy into pure absurdism. It doesn't entirely work, but you can see them struggling against the limitations.
Some aspects of the story do work well enough, though, and one of them is Ray. She's kind of adorable, really, and acts as the Doctor's surrogate companion for much of the running time. (Mel is oddly sidelined, and there was apparently some uncertainty at the time as to whether or not Bonnie Langford would leave at midseason or stay for the whole year.) Sara Griffiths plays the part with a mixture of vulnerability and toughness that makes you regret she didn't stay on, though clearly elements of the character ended up in the Doctor's next companion, the spunky Ace.
It's not a bad story, but it's not really a good story either. It's fascinating as a fan to watch the show push against boundaries that the BBC seem to have put in place explicitly to kill the thing, but I'm not sure most people will appreciate that particular experience. That said, it's nice to know that even at its most rushed and creatively desperate, the show still has a certain charm.
Written by Malcom Kohll
Produced by John Nathan Turner
Directed by Chris Clough