By the time Sylvester McCoy stepped into the leading role, “Doctor Who” was a show still on the rocks. The Colin Baker years saw more drama behind-the-scenes than on the screen, with BBC honchos cutting the show’s season length down to a paltry fourteen half-hour episodes, then infamously firing Baker while rescinding producer John Nathan-Turner’s request to leave the show. Nathan-Turner was left with little time to find a new star and a new script editor in time to launch season twenty-four.
This leaves serials like “Delta and the Bannermen” – a three-part adventure marking the season’s third story; it originally aired in November 1987 – feeling rushed, confused, and wildly uneven. The previous two seasons had to contend with (among countless other things) complaints that the show was getting darker and more violent, to which the creation of the eternally chipper companion Mel always seemed like a knee-jerk reaction. Played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by squeaky-voiced stage veteran Bonnie Langford, Mel seems created (by Nathan-Turner himself, despite protests from former script editor Eric Saward) specifically to appeal to young children; Langford, while charming, plays the character as some sort of kiddie show host, Mel’s only traits being optimism and a good set of lungs for screaming.
Incoming script editor Andrew Cartmel was a late hire, missing out on early development of the season, which explains Nathan-Turner’s heavy hand in the year’s more comical tones. While Cartmel would eventually steer the series into more mysterious territories throughout the following two seasons, they would first have to deal with scripts that played the Seventh Doctor as something of a clown. Penned by Malcolm Kohll, “Delta” is full of weak laughs (even the title is a limp joke, a dopey pun on 80s alt-rockers Echo and the Bunnymen), complimented by ain’t-it-nutty? cameos from Ken Dodd (as a wacky space tollmaster), Hugh Lloyd (as a wacky beekeeper), and Stubby Kaye (as a wacky American secret agent).
It would seem that lightheartedness abounds in “Delta,” but really, it’s an awfully grim and unpleasant story – amidst all that 1950s rock n’ roll and “Hi-De-Hi!” frivolity sits genocide, warlords, and senseless brutality. While the darker material works decently on its own, the scripts present an off-putting short attention span: within moments of the villains killing dozens of innocent bystanders (a daring yet rather gruesome surprise for the viewer), the story is back to its upbeat self, and no mentions of the incident are made again. “Who” has deftly balanced humor and bleakness before, but in “Delta,” the balance is all wrong, leaving the viewer squirming in all the wrong spots.
The serial opens in a war zone, with the nefarious Bannermen warriors, led by Gavrok (Don Henderson), wiping out the last of the Chimeron (who resemble little green army men, in what may or may not be an intentional visual joke). Delta (Belinda Mayne), the Chimeron Queen, manages to escape with the egg of her only child, making them the last two of their kind.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Mel have arrived at a Navarino spaceport, where they learn they’ve won a free “nostalgia holiday tour” to Disneyland, circa 1959. Mel, apparently oblivious to the fact that she just stepped out of a time/space machine, is excited about the concept of time/space travel, so off they go, unaware that Delta and her egg has joined them, thus ensuring the Bannermen will be on the trail.
A collision with an American space satellite forces them to land not in California, but in Wales, at the Shangri-La holiday camp. They’re welcomed with open arms, but then Gavrok and his Bannermen arrive, setting traps for the Doctor in an effort to finally do away with Delta and her princess, who has hatched and is growing at a remarkable rate.
“Delta” has its fair share of quality individual moments, and the ideas that inspire the plot are interesting, yet as a whole, the serial is too much of a mess. It’s tempting to blame the new three-part format – rather than end the season with a six-parter, Nathan-Turner opted to make two three-parters, the first of their kind for the series – although I doubt that even with the looser pacing of a traditional four-parter, the various tones and concepts would properly gel.
Squeezing it all into three episodes instead of four leaves each chapter frantic and chaotic, to the point that much is lost on the viewer. We might love the Doctor’s “white flag” speech to Gavrok at the end of part two, but the plot that surrounds it overflows with logic gaps and unanswered questions. (I’m still not sure why Gavrok sets his prisoners free.) We might adore Lloyd’s appearance as the nutty beekeeper, but his character’s overlong dialogue hinting at how queen bees parallel the Chimeron’s life cycle is too forced (and too blatant) an analogy. We might genuinely feel for Ray (Sara Griffiths), the resourceful bobbysoxer whose heart is broken when her longtime crush Billy (David Kinder) falls madly for Delta, but only to a point; we never get a solid grasp on this love triangle, especially once it kicks into whirlwind proportions that finds Billy wanting to transform into a Chimeron.
Indeed, it’s Griffiths’ winsome performance that conveys how we’re supposed to feel about this subplot, and not Kohll’s teleplay itself. Ray is an absolute delight of a character, which makes sense once you discover she was designed as a potential new companion for the series. (Long story short: Langford decided she wanted to exit the show but wasn’t sure when, so Nathan-Turner ordered that both “Delta” and the next serial, “Dragonfire,” feature possible companion replacements. Langford eventually opted to stay on until the end of “Dragonfire,” and the job eventually went to Sophie Aldred’s Ace.) There’s a hint of Ace in the character of Ray, who’s also fiercely independent and eager for action, although Griffiths’ character is also somewhat mousy and a bit of the screamer school of companion. She stands completely as her own self, though, a cousin to, and not copy of, Ace. And Griffiths is bright and wonderful in this serial, effortlessly playing off McCoy. It’s a performance that lifts the story and carries us through its numerous faults.
As Gavrok, Don Henderson isn’t so lucky. His performance is also terrific, full of brutish growl, but he’s left leading a pack of inept, underwhelming villains. The Bannermen, supposedly evil enough to cause fear with their name alone, are merely 80s-punk dopes who can’t even manage to hold onto a prisoner. And the script gives Gavrok so very little to do beyond grimace; we’re repeatedly told he and his henchmen are a threat, but rarely believe it.
The rest of the overcrowded story is littered with ideas that feel pasted in at the last minute, like Stubby Kaye’s CIA agent who, for reasons never quite clear, is stomping around Wales in search of a lost American satellite. The whole “nostalgia tour” subplot could equally have been dumped without affecting the big picture, and not just because Ken Dodd’s role reeks of desperate celebrity cameo and adds nothing beyond a mere “oh, look, it’s Ken Dodd.”
Meanwhile, parts that are essential to the whole thing, like the Billy/Delta romance and the baby princess’ rapid growth, feel rushed to the point that they, too, don’t feel quite natural. By the final scenes, we’re left with too many characters standing around with too little to do. Kohll tries to pile on the charm and the thrills, but neither angle really works the way it should, resulting in a bad case of “Hi-De-Ho Hum.”