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Doctor Who: The Doomsday Contract

By Matthew Kresal

Doctor Who's seventeenth season, aired across autumn 1979 and early 1980, has become remembered primarily for being the year that its script editor, arguably the equivalent of the modern showrunner, was Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy creator Douglas Adams. The second is that the season gave viewers City of Death, a serial co-written by Adams, that earned Doctor Who its highest ever viewing figure. Finally, its planned finale serial, Shada, was scarpered by a strike, leaving it the Who equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat, incomplete in its original form yet existing in several versions across multiple other media formats. In a different timeline, it might also be known to fans as the season that first saw John Lloyd, the noted comedy producer and writer whose credits include Blackadder and QI, writing for the Doctor. Lloyd's serial didn't make it to the screen in our world, but thanks to Big Finish, we can now hear what that story might have been. Before Lloyd became known for Blackadder, QI, and things like Spitting Image, he and Adams had worked together on radio. Before that, however, they had been flatmates. Indeed, as Adams struggled to get his writing career off the ground after leaving Cambridge, Lloyd was already making a reputation for himself as a BBC Radio producer. When Adams finally landed a major commission at the BBC, the first series of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the commission coincided with Adams landing a job to write the 1978 Doctor Who serial The Pirate Planet. Already notorious for missing deadlines, something he would become even more infamous for later in his career, Adams had Lloyd step into the breach as his co-writer for the final two episodes of the first series. Given Lloyd's experience and his collaboration with Adams, it's perhaps no surprise that when Adams became Doctor Who's script editor, he tapped his friend as a potential writer. In October 1978, Lloyd received a commission for a storyline that he delivered some weeks later. The storyline, drawing upon ideas Lloyd had created for an unfinished science fiction novel, was entitled The Doomsday Contract and echoed the style of Adams writing for Hitchhikers as the Doctor becomes an expert witness in a court case that could see the Earth destroyed by a galactic mega-corporation. Yet it didn't meet entirely with approval, as Lloyd noted in the 2010 BBC Radio 4 documentary The Doctor and Douglas: “I thought, ‘this is going to be just brilliant and make my name.’ But it broke every rule in Doctor Who, children carrying guns and all sorts of things you weren’t allowed to do that they hadn’t bothered to tell me about sadly. They didn’t give me the rule book first.” Though Lloyd took a second crack at a storyline, overhauling much of it, events quickly overtook the proposed serial. In January 1979, Lloyd set aside The Doomsday Contract, citing time constraints caused by producing the BBC Two series Not the Nine O'Clock News. Allan Prior, who had recently penned episodes of Doctor Who's stablemate Blake's 7, took up the challenge. While Prior delivered scripts in March 1979, Doomsday Contract wasn't part of the seventeenth season. While Adams received Lloyd's permission in September to let yet another writer take a crack at the story for season 18, he left the series in November, the success of Hitchhikers setting him on his way to becoming a bestselling author. The arrival of new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead and producer John Nathan-Turner with a view toward toning down the humor of previous seasons proved the final nail in the coffin to the proposed serial. Adams and Lloyd would collaborate on several projects, including a "dictionary of things that there aren't any words for yet" called The Meaning of Liff, before Adams's death at age 49 in May 2001. Yet The Doomsday Contract wasn't entirely forgotten, as UK audio drama company Big Finish Productions entered the frame. From 2008 to 2013, Big Finish had run a successful range under the banner of Doctor Who - The Lost Stories adapting stories first conceived for the screen but were ultimately unmade. Having produced everything from the intended second serial, The Masters of Luxor, to the fourth season of Sylvester McCoy's Seventh Doctor, Big Finish eyed the unmade 1979 storyline. But despite overtures made by Dead Ringers writer Nev Fountain to Lloyd about adapting it, the end of the Lost Stories range in 2013 put a stop to plans for an audio adaptation. Following the range's revival, Big Finish announced two more stories starring Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor planned for a Spring 2021 release. The first was Return of the Cybermen from his first season in the role, while the other was The Doomsday Contract adapted by Fountain. A veteran comedy writer and contributor to Big Finish, Fountain proved an ideal choice to adapt The Doomsday Contract. As he noted in the extras, Fountain started with Lloyd's two storylines, having no access to the rejected Prior scripts. As the history above may allude to, while they were similar, they were also quite different. For example, one version featured the child-like assassins known as the Children of Pyxis, the other a nomadic race of mercenaries called the Wadifalayeen. Fountain's answer was to create a hybrid of the two storylines, drawing upon elements of both Lloyd's attempts, including drawing upon Adams's original notes to the writer in 1978. As a result, Fountain's adaptation is precisely the sort of romp that Adams's work on Hitchhikers and other Doctor Who serials were. The Fourth Doctor, Romana, and robot dog K-9 have their holiday interrupted by a bureaucratic summons. The Doctor is to be an expert witness in a court case as a galactic trust run by an old acquaintance is fighting to stop the Earth's destruction by the Cosmegalon Corporation and its owner Skorpios. The Earth's preservation order is due to expire, and the Doctor's the best hope to prove there's intelligent life on Earth, except that confirming it leaves him open to vaporization for violating it. Taking in assassins aging in reverse, a centuries-old lost jury, not to mention plenty of gags about conservation groups and recycling, The Doomsday Contract plays like a legal thriller crossed with Hitchhikers Guide, told inside a four-part Doctor Who serial. One suspects that the listener's feelings about Hitchhikers, which Llyod and Fountain strive so much to emulate, will color their enjoyment of this story. But if you enjoyed Adams with his unique cross of wit and science fiction, then you'll find plenty to enjoy here. It also helps that it's exceedingly well-told. Tom Baker, in particular, is in fine form, clearly relishing every moment back in the role with a script emulating the best of his later years as the Doctor, being quite funny much of the time but bringing an air of seriousness when required. Baker's given able backing by his companions, Lalla Ward's suitably upper-class Time Lady Romana and John Leeson as K-9, both essentially the straight man to Baker's Doctor while also having moments of their own to shine. The supporting cast is solid, too, from Richard Laing playing Skorpios like a mobster take on Hitchhikers Zaphod Beeblebrox, Paul Panting as the Doctor's conservationist friend, and Julian Wadham's Judge who is as frequently annoyed by proceedings as he is at lunch. The icing on the cake comes from Nicholas Briggs' skillful direction (not to mention appearing in a small comedic role) and Howard Carter's score, which perfectly captures composer Dudley Simpson's late seventies musical stylings. All of which serves to make the release feel as authentic as possible. As well made as the Big Finish version is, one can't help but wonder how well The Doomsday Contract would have fared on screen. Outside of City of Death, season 17 isn't typically well-regard by Doctor Who fandom, often let down by its inflation ravaged low budget and an uneasy mix of humor with its storytelling. It's easy to forget today that even the classic City of Death came in for plenty of criticism and as Lalla Ward observed in The Doctor and Douglas, Shada only came to be seen highly "for the wrong reason," namely it's not being finished for TV. What would Doomsday Contract have been: a classic like City of Death or an ill-regarded dud like The Horns of Nimon? That, as the Doctor's pal William Shakespeare once observed, is the question. One we don't have an easy answer to, of course. What we have is an enjoyable couple of hours of Doctor Who, albeit about four decades late on arriving.


Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press and has also written a book about the TV series 'Dark Skies'


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