By Matthew Kresal
Another Baker as Doctor Who.
Picture courtesy Big Finish Productions.
Perhaps no era of Doctor Who can be said to have had such dramatic behind-the-scenes upheavals as that of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor. Debuting in The Twin Dilemma (consecutively picked as the worst TV Doctor Who story in fan polls carried out by Doctor Who Magazine), Baker’s first season in the role was only partway through transmission when it was put on hiatus for 18 months, having narrowly avoided full-on cancellation. Shortly after Baker’s second season, the season-long arc of Trial of a Time Lord, had finished, Baker found himself dismissed from the role, the capstone of a season’s worth of troubles that had included a very public falling out between the series script editor Eric Saward and its producer John Nathan-Turner and increased fan criticisms of the series. It was an era best summed up in the title of a documentary included on Trial of a Time Lord’s DVD release: Trials and Tribulations. It was also an era that left a trove of unmade serials in its wake, including one first known to fandom as The Space Whale and eventually produced on audio as The Song of Megaptera .
The Song of Megaptera’s development history was nearly as troubled as Colin Baker’s tenure. Its origins lie in the latter days of Tom Baker’s time in the role when Doctor Who Magazine (first published as Doctor Who Weekly and later as Doctor Who Monthly) was hitting its stride. Writers Pat Mills and John Wagner created many of the early comic strips featured in the magazine’s pages based on pitches made to the series production team previously, including the “Rome never fell” parallel Earth story The Iron Legion and The Star Beast (the latter ironically now serving as the basis for one of the sixtieth anniversary specials set to air on BBC One later this year).
Soon, the pair began to work on new ideas for the comic strip. One idea involving space-based whales and those hunting them caught the attention of Mills’ wife. Telling her husband and his writing partner that the idea was too good to be left to a comic, she encouraged Mills and Wagner to submit it to the Doctor Who production office. Their pitch, featuring Tom Baker’s Doctor, came in late 1980, ironically around the time Baker’s departing the TARDIS became public.
Even so, the idea found favour with the production team of Saward and Nathan-Turner. With Peter Davison established as the Fifth Doctor, Mills and Wagner got the commission for a storyline in September 1981 and scripts that December, with the intention of The Space Whale being part of Davison’s second season. Indeed, the story was to introduce a new companion, Turlough, who would be among the castaways given safe harbour inside the titular creature. Though Wagner would depart from the project, all seemed well for it to be the third serial of Doctor Who’s 20th season.
Until the scripts arrived and Saward raised objections. Part of this stemmed from the whaler captain, Greeg, being from a working-class background and rising through the ranks, as well as Mills’ depiction of the castaways as mystics. Interviewed in 2009 for the eventual audio adaptation, Mills would put Saward’s objections down to a reaction to the over-the-top humour of the late Tom Baker era and Saward wishing to put more of a serious tone back into Doctor Who. With Mills unable to deliver a workable alternative to Saward’s liking soon enough, the serial Mawdryn Undead replaced The Space Whale (and raised implications for the series continuity that persist to the present day. Mills would continue developing the scripts, retooled for the incoming Colin Baker Doctor and his American companion Peri (played by Nicola Bryant). A format change also saw it move from four episodes of 25 minutes length to a pair of 45-minute episodes, with an eye for potentially being produced for season 22. Saward, though, was still unhappy with the scripts, and the serial Vengeance on Varos took its place, pushing it into Baker’s second season the following year.
Peri, played by Nicola Bryant, with a fake American accent. Voted 4th most hated Dr Who character. Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor topped the poll.
That was until February 1985, when Doctor Who found itself on hiatus. Though work continued, now moving the two 45 minutes back to four 25-minute ones, the decision by BBC executives Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell to reduce Doctor Who’s run to 14 episodes saw Saward and Nathan-Turner retooling their plans. With plans focusing on the season-long Trial of a Timelord, The Space Whale was abandoned in July 1985, never to be made for television after going through three different Doctors and numerous script drafts.
This is where The Space Whale’s story might have ended had it not been for the audio dramas based on the series. In 2008, Big Finish Productions (the UK-based company producing audio dramas and spinoffs since 1999) began a new range of releases known as Doctor Who – The Lost Scripts. With Baker’s era featuring at least a season’s worth of unproduced scripts due to the hiatus (and more than thirteen serials featuring his Doctor have featured in the range as of writing), it was a natural enough place for Big Finish to start. Having contributed two audio dramas featuring Paul McGann’s Doctor for the company, Mills was approached to bring his 1980s script to life. Thus The Space Whale, now under the revised title of The Song of Megaptera, appeared in May 2010, nearly thirty years after its original pitching and commissioning.
One of the things that sets the Lost Stories apart from much of Big Finish’s other Doctor Who output is a striving to recreate the feel of the TV era the story would have been part of. The Song of Megaptera is a case in point, with Mills’ script retaining much of its 1980s eco-thriller bent, with the TARDIS falling foul of Captain Greeg of the whaling spaceship Orkas as it attempts to hunt a massive Ghaleen, the time-sensitive space whale of the original title. Amid a galactic recession, the Ghaleen offers the captain, soon to face forced retirement, one last bit of glory, even as he chafes under his company man second-in-command, Stennar. With a fungoid alien whale hunter known as the Caller as a stowaway to add complications, the Doctor and Peri navigate a delicate situation that eventually takes them into the belly of the Ghaleen and discover castaways inside. Known to them as Megaptera, they are unwilling to leave what they see as a sentient haven from the universe even as danger grows, leading to an eventual showdown with the fate of Megaptera, the Orkas, the castaways, and (of course) the Ghaleen as a species all at stake.
The Song of Megaptera.
What’s clear from listening to the version produced by Big Finish is that Mill’s eventual script bore hallmarks from all the various eras during which it had undergone development. Saward was indeed correct that much of the humour and the idea of mystics in the habitual belly of a space whale owed something to the late Tom Baker era, including the scripts from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy creator Douglas Adams. The portrayal of the Orkas computer, reprogrammed by the Doctor for much of the serial, likewise owes much to Adams’ writing. The eighties corporate allegory, meanwhile, feels in keeping with a recurring theme of Saward’s tenure as script editor, which made its way into Davison-era serials such as Terminus or the two for Colin Baker featuring the villain Sil written by Philip Martin. Lastly, the various character pairings and the outright comedy double act of two security guards, along with some of the more body horror and threatened violence, bring to mind Saward’s work during the Colin Baker era influenced by the return of longtime Doctor Who writer Robert Holmes to the series. It’s a heady mix, with Mills bringing his comic writing background to bear by writing some well-cone cliffhangers. But does it work?
For the most part, yes. Perhaps as a result, there’s a feeling that The Song of Megaptera is a piece of traditional Doctor Who fare. Though tailored for Colin Baker’s Doctor and Peri, it could easily have fit into the eras of any of the three Doctors it was developed under with only minor modifications. This manages, paradoxically, to be something that is both a plus and a minus for the story as a whole. Because while it works as a story in finding a nice mix of elements, The Song of Megaptera has more than a slight air of predictability, not to mention the odd tonal whiplash from scene to scene (or, perhaps more accurately, from era to era). If there’s a story that encompasses everything that made early-mid 1980s Doctor Who what it was with all its glories and contradictions, it would be this one.
Capturing that mid-1980s feel is also something the production itself lives up to. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant were old hands at their roles, having reprised them from the earliest days of Big Finish’s Doctor Who output, and that sense of familiarity underpins their work here. Indeed, as Baker spoke to in the extras for the first release in the range, it was a challenge to return to the more abrasive performances of his TV serials over the version of the Doctor he’d played on audio. Here, though, him and the script seemed to have found a middle ground between the two, giving him the odd abrasive moment but also humour and friendlier interactions with Bryant’s Peri. The writing from Mills likewise gives Peri more to do than she often had on TV, making her more central to things and dropping the odd reference to her life before the TARDIS. The second episode also offers some delightful comedic material, as well, that stands head and shoulders above anything she got on TV. The icing on the cake is the sound design and music of Daniel Brett, who wonderfully pastiches both the BBC Radiophonic Workshop sound effects and the synthesizer-based scores that populated this era.
After almost three decades, was the wait for The Song of Megaptera worth it? Given the quality of the Baker era on TV, the quality of the script from Mills feels more than equal to anything put before the cameras in TV centre. Would the visuals, including the Orkas in space and the mile-long space whale, have been well-realized? Given the hit and miss nature of 1980s Doctor Who’s visual effects, ranging from the solar wind sailing ships of Enlightenment to the ill-realized Hyperion III of Terror of the Vervoids, it’s hard to say. As a piece of traditional Doctor Who fare, The Song of Megaptera might well have been what fans craved amid the tumultuous tides of the Baker era.
Craved, but ultimately not fulfilled.
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Matthew Kresal is the author of the SLP book Our Man on the Hill.