Written by Malcolm Kohll
Directed by Chris Clough
How long until something old is new again?
They say the Nostalgia Cycle is between twenty and thirty years. Long enough for a generation to experience something, grow up, and then become creators making works that hark back to that original childhood experience. The 1980s had a strong streak of nostalgia for the 1950s running through it – the most popular music video of the decade, Thriller, was a B-movie pastiche set in the 50s, monster movies were back in vogue, with remakes of The Thing From Another World, The Fly and The Blob, and America finally produced its own time travel series to rival Doctor Who with Back To The Future. And of course just like the late 50s you had the increasing fear of nuclear annihilation under a grandfatherly American president, and Britain was reaching a decade of unbroken Conservative rule. Not all sunny, then. And amid all this, Doctor Who did its first nostalgia episode.
We rejoin our heroes as they make a landing at an intergalactic toll port, only to discover they’re the 10,000,000,000th customers and have won an all-expenses paid trip with a dodgy time-travelling package tour company to Disneyland in the 1950s. Unbeknownst to the other Navarino passengers, one of their number is Delta, the Chimeron queen and last survivor of a genocide. On the way to Earth, Nostalgia Tours’ battered old bus collides with an orbiting satellite and crashes in the far less glamourous surroundings of the quaint Shangri-La holiday camp in South Wales. Romance, dancing and good old-fashioned rock’n’roll await. But the sinister Bannermen are on Delta’s trail…
The strange thing is that Doctor Who didn’t really do nostalgia episodes. It did “historical tourism” episodes, where the TARDIS lands in a collection of tropes from a particular era, but even those were surprisingly rare at this point in the show’s history. The last had been “The Mark of the Rani” two years earlier, set in Industrial Revolution Tyneside. So “Delta and the Bannermen” was something surprisingly new. It’s also a testament to how long the series had lasted. “Bannermen” is set in 1959, just four years before the series starts. Doctor Who has finally reached a point where its own past has become part of the nostalgia cycle. Next year it would do the first “historical” story set within its own existence. Like “Paradise Towers”, which aimed for something the audience could relate to, this is an episode set in the childhood of the mums and dads watching, a childhood of holiday camps and Bill Haley.
The most fascinating thing about the serial’s approach to nostalgia, though, is how cynical it is. Not towards the characters – we’ll get back to them in a moment – but towards the very concept of nostalgia. One of the things Doctor Who is uniquely good at is juxtaposing very different elements. What other show could feature an alien invasion of robot Egyptian mummies in Edwardian England? And this one doesn’t simply take its Eighties viewers back to the Fifties, it mounts a full-on Eighties invasion of the Fifties.
1959 is invaded by the Bannermen, with their 80s black tactical gear, their cyberpunk visors, their machine guns and their disgusting eating habits – one of the serial’s most memorably queasy images is chief baddie Gavrok (Don Henderson, who got choked by Darth Vader in Star Wars) munching on a hunk of raw meat. Their secret informant is that classic 80s trope, a sinister sadist with a South African accent. And they’re here to kill Delta, to finish off the complete genocide of her species. They’re so at odds with the cosy holiday camp love triangle that comprises the other half of the plot it gives them a frisson of genuine danger. They don’t just feel like they’re invading the place, they feel like they’re invading the story, bringing with them a whole different, more violent set of tropes. This climaxes in Episode 2, when they massacre the entire bus full of Navarino tourists, leaving a smoking crater where Nostalgia Tours was. The past is a foreign country, and it’s not always a holiday camp. Sometimes it’s a warzone.
And why this works is that the world of this story is surprisingly lovely. It’s been a long time since Doctor Who visited a setting this… ordinary. There’s kids running around the holiday camp, and an appealing little vignette in the canteen where a child gives the Doctor an apple and McCoy does a little bit of comic business with it. In fact, the Doctor seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself at Shangri-La, while Mel is initially disappointed they’ve settled for a grotty Welsh holiday camp rather than Disneyland. That’s not the only thing this serial does that we haven’t seen in a long time, though. In fact, I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Doctor Who do it – an honest-to-God love story.
Technically it’s a love triangle, between Delta (Queen of the Chimerons), Billy (the camp’s mechanic and band frontman) and Ray. Ray is the standout part of the serial, something I don’t think we’ve ever had in Doctor Who before – a lovelorn teenager. In a wonderfully efficient bit of storytelling, it’s clear that her feelings for Billy are entirely one-sided in her very first scene, when he off-handedly greets her with “Oh, hello Rachel”, before she introduces herself to everyone else as Ray. The Doctor, on the other hand, is immediately taken by Ray. In fact, he basically dumps Mel for Ray as soon as he meets her! He almost seems to fancy her, in a very chaste, innocent way. In one of the serial’s most touching scenes, when Billy dedicates “Why Do Fools Fall In Love?” to Delta at the camp’s Getting To Know You Dance, an adorably awkward Doctor asks the heartbroken Ray to dance. And when she runs away to cry in the store room, he goes after her. By the middle of Episode 3, he’s calling her “my cariad”! When was the last time Doctor Who cared about something as everyday as a teenage girl’s love life? It feels like a precursor to Russell T Davies’ approach, everyday experiences juxtaposed against cosmic-scale danger. It’s another great establishing moment for McCoy’s Doctor and his love of the little things in life, as is his wistful “Love never has been known for its rationality” later.
Speaking of Mel, she finally gets a good turn in this one, even though she’s sidelined more than ever. Outside the heightened atmosphere of alien planets and future tower blocks, Langford gets to approach the role more naturalistically. In fact, there’s more of the Big Finish Mel in this one than any other, as when she tells Delta she’d “help anyone in trouble, if I could”. She’s a plain, good-hearted young woman with a spirit of adventure and thirst for fun. She also shows some real grit when captured by Gavrok, and smoothly lies to him that Delta was onboard the Navarino bus he just blew up.
In fact, the whole supporting cast is pretty great in this one. Another standout is Shangri-La’s manager Mr Burton, who starts out amusingly quaint until Episode 2 reveals that he’s actually Major Burton and has a lot more steel than he lets on. He saves Mel’s life by staring down Gavrok, and spends Episode 3 brandishing his old Army sabre, ready to take on the Bannermen. There’s Goronwy, a cryptic, Myrddin-like old beekeeper who kindly delivers some exposition about how bees (and Chimerons) work, and seems to have a special bond with insects. And then there’s the two CIA agents Weismuller (Stubby Kaye, the original Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls) and Hawk (Morgan Deare, who also appeared in “Rosa”). They’re the most blatantly comic of the cast, mostly existing to sound incongruously American in South Wales. In fact, one of the actors considered for Weismuller was Mitchell! himself, Joe Don Baker, which makes me suspect the character is a deliberate parody of Baker’s star turn as CIA agent Darius Jedburgh in Edge of Darkness two years earlier.
Of course, much like the previous two serials, while there’s a lot of things fresh and new to like here, there’s a lot that doesn’t quite land. The special effects are variable. One of the most notorious is the Chimeron males, who look like green plastic army men. As script editor Andrew Cartmel described it:
And the people who were responsible for making the aliens look alien, what they’d done was stuck some cotton wool on their faces and dyed it green. We are all working to the limits of our professionalism. […] I remember when we were doing the press screening at BAFTA and I was sitting next to this woman journalist and she saw this guy’s face and she snorted with derisive laughter. When we turned up for that day on location and saw those aliens, we were so enraged. Everyone had tried so hard, to the best of their abilities but somebody else had thought well, we can just get away with something.
Then there’s the massacre of the Navarino tourists in Episode 2. While it should be a turning point in the episode, a shocking intrusion of violence into the world, the actual effect is a bit half-hearted, with a rather weedy little smoke explosion. If Mel didn’t say “You killed all those innocent people!” it wouldn’t even be entirely clear that they had been killed. And since we only ever knew Murray the bus driver, it’s hard to feel too affected. Perhaps a wiser choice might have been to give Murray, an endearingly workaday bloke who just happens to be a purple blob in human disguise, a more personal and graphic death, something that actually reinforces just how vicious the Bannermen are.
The biggest problem, though, is that despite nominally being a love story, the romance between Delta and Billy doesn’t work. Our two romantic leads (Belinda Mayne and David Kinder) are flatter than a pair of boards, to the point where you wonder what Ray even saw in Billy besides his motorcycle. Billy falls for Delta on sight, without even talking to her, and their first conversation is just after her egg hatches into an ugly green puppet. This does not phase him in the least, which would be interesting if this was a character point, but really it’s just being ignored so the plot can keep moving. And then, in the third episode, Billy doses himself with Delta’s Royal Jelly so he can transform into a Chimeron and leave Earth with her. This ought to be the emotional climax of the whole story – Billy choosing to leave Earth and humanity behind to be with the woman he loves, despite the risks – but it falls completely flat as the two look blankly at each other until the plot interrupts them once again. (More than that, it comes out of nowhere, because Billy couldn’t possibly know eating the jelly would work. Why would the jelly that turns Delta’s Chimeron daughter into a young adult, turn a human male into a Chimeron?) I mentioned back in “Time and the Rani” that that serial was an episode too long. Well, this one is an episode too short. Just a little more space to let the characters breath and events happen more naturally, and it could have been something really special.
“Delta”, like “Paradise Towers” before it, has a strange place in fan memory. In the big DWM poll of 2014, it came in 217th, in the ignoble company of “Four To Doomsday” and “The Monster of Peladon”. It’s not considered a “real” Seventh Doctor story because it’s “silly”. And it is, occasionally, but what’s so wrong with that? It’s funny, but more importantly it’s usually funny because it wants to be, not because it’s incompetent. It’s also quietly groundbreaking, doing things Doctor Who hadn’t done well in years, or in some cases, ever. It’s doing things that they would only get better at in the next two years. And so ironically for a story about nostalgia, “Delta and the Bannermen” is one that looks better looking back today than it did at the time.
- Ken Dodd makes a stunt cameo as the Toll-Keeper at the beginning. If you have no idea who Ken Dodd is, like me, the whole scene feels like a joke you’re not in on. All I know about him is the old warm-up tongue twister, “Ken Dodd’s dad’s dog’s dead”.
- Another possible influence on this one – it aired only two months after Dirty Dancing, another movie about an inter-class romance at an old-fashioned holiday camp, debuted in the UK.
- The serial was known as “Flight Of The Chimeron” until very late in production, when it was renamed into a pun on the name of post-punk band Echo & The Bunnymen.
- Sara Griffiths as Ray was in consideration to replace Mel, but instead they went with Sophiel Aldred as Ace. It’s interesting to imagine the next two seasons with Ray instead of Ace.
- Composer Keff McCulloch put together Shangri-La’s house band, the Lorells. That’s him on guitar, and his fiancée on backing vocals.
- The first three-parter since “Planet of the Giants”, all the way back in season 2, and the first one to be deliberately so. For these final three years, each season would consist of two four-parters and two three-parters.
- The Doctor gets three mangled proverbs in this serial, which I think might be the record. “There’s many a slap twixt a cup and a lap,” “All haste and no speed makes Jill a dull girl” and “A stitch in time fills up space.”
- Major Burton’s dog, seen in his first scene, is producer John Nathan-Turner’s dog Pepsi.
- Mel Fashion Watch: Mel actually looks great this week. In Episode 1 she has a dark blue jacket over a white shirt and blue-and-white striped dress. In Episode 2 she switches to a blue denim shirt with rhinestones, high-waisted jeans, a red scarf around her neck and red cowboy boots. It’s a good look, and she looks surprisingly badass brandishing a gun at the end of Episode 3.
- You can see McCoy wearing his glasses in the long shots when driving the motorcycle in Episode 3. Probably he didn’t want to take risks with two passengers on the bike with him.
- And hey, it’s the very rare appearance of a real police box! I’m not sure how realistic it would be to have one sitting in the middle of an isolated lay-by in rural South Wales, though. Nor how you could pick up the phone and ask to be put through to the White House. Also, Weismuller says it’s “the President’s right hand man!” In 1959? Was it Nixon?