'Doctor Who' class notes: Sarah Jane Smith, Lalla Ward and the unbearable Mary Whitehouse
Syracuse Post-Standard culture reporter, Katrina Tulloch, continues her "class notes" coverage of Who Class with key takeaways from the first public offering of the course in the spring of 2015.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- In Monday night's Doctor Who and the Digital Age class, we continued covering the long reign of Tom Baker as the jelly-baby-loving Fourth Doctor.
Thanks to the creative energy of showrunner Philip Hinchcliffe, script editor Robert Holmes and Baker, the show enjoyed a golden era from the mid 1970s to the late 1970s.
These years were arguably the best of the classic "Doctor Who," with appearances from beloved companions Sarah Jane Smith, Romana and K-9, the robot dog.
"Doctor Who" class professor Anthony Rotolo treated his class to two major surprises on Monday night: an appearance from K-9 itself and jelly baby cupcakes. Pop culture and sweets? We're spoiled.
Villain of the Week
This week's villain wasn't a "Doctor Who" character, but a real person hellbent on ending the show altogether.
During Baker's era, Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister (1979). Her ascension signaled a return to traditional values and the embrace of fervent capitalism in the U.K.
Emerging with the rise in conservative values was Mary Whitehouse, an activist opposed to violence and obscenity in children's television.
Whitehouse campaigned vigorously against the BBC on behalf of National Viewers' and Listeners' Association. She called the show the "sickest and most horrific material ever seen on children's television...'Doctor Who' has turned into tea-time brutality for tots."
"Her mission in life was to end 'Doctor Who,'" Rotolo said. "To fans, this is the face of evil. She is the real life [Dolores] Umbridge, by the way."
Whitehouse wrote opinion columns, appeared on TV and campaigned in the streets to get the show canceled.
"As Taylor Swift says, 'haters gonna hate, hate, hate,'" Rotolo said. "In 'Doctor Who' the villain never wins. In real life, the villain does win, at least for a while."
The BBC buckled to her will and dismissed Hinchcliffe as showrunner, even though he had ushered in the best episodes in the show's history, and turned the Doctor into a fan phenomenon.
Graham Williams was hired as a new showrunner, along with Douglas Adams, the witty writer of "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy."
"This wasn't so bad really," Rotolo said. "The new team knew why they were there and they toned things down a bit. The show became more family-friendly."
Among the kid-friendly cast additions was K-9, the robot dog. Whovians who loved the more violent, Hammer-Horror-influenced era thought K-9 was too childish, but K-9 went on to become one of the most recognizable icons of "Who" history.
Sarah Jane Smith
Clocking in three years, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) was the longest and among the most adored of the Doctor's companions.
When it came time for her to move on, she needed a creative, ceremonious exit. In a story called "The Hand of Fear," the show writers planned to simply kill her off.
"Both actors (Sladen and Baker) protested," Rotolo said. "They felt that would be too upsetting to fans, especially younger fans."
Remarkably, Hinchcliffe let Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen write the ending, believing only these two actors would know what these characters would do in the end. We watched their parting in class. You can watch it below.
Sarah Jane was extremely popular. She would go on to appear in several special episodes of "Doctor Who" and her own series, "The Sarah Jane Adventures." It ran from 2007 until Sladen's death in 2011.
"She's the only companion to have a solid spin-off career," Rotolo said.
Tom Baker was brilliant, but he wasn't very easy to work with. After Sarah Jane, he decided he was established enough to carry the show himself, without a companion. Hitchcliffe disagreed. He believed viewers needed them to relate to the Doctor.
Baker got one episode by himself until the writers threw in Leela, a tribal woman who hops into the TARDIS despite the Doctor's protests. Leela's episode's are some of the best, but Baker didn't want a costar, especially a warrior companion with a knife.
"Baker was super conscious of young fans," Rotolo said. "He was concerned her weaponry and fighting would influence young fans."
As a result, he treated actress Louise Jameson poorly on set. They had a cold relationship and the actress left after one season.
"There's a constant struggle with the idea that it was a children's show or something else," Rotolo said.
The Time Lords quickly sent the Doctor a new companion: Romana (Mary Tamm), a Time Lady from Gallifrey, and an intellectual equal. After one season, Lalla Ward was cast as Romana after she wowed producers as Princess Astra.
Baker liked her too.
"Lalla Ward had better chemistry with Baker, and that's because they started doin' it," Rotolo explained. "People really liked these two together, though Baker said the Doctor is not a sexual being. The Doctor is not a romantic."
Baker went on to marry Ward. Their marriage lasted 16 months.
The Graham Williams era brought in strong ratings. By the early 1980s, though, many competitor channels were going on strike and "Doctor Who," enjoyed a ratings bump because it was the only thing on TV.
In class, we watched the Doctor's first ever jaunt to Paris, the City of Light, in an episode called "City of Death." It was entirely written by Douglas Adams and remains one of the highest rated stories ever, thanks to Adams's knack for witty banter.
If you're interested in attending a live "Doctor Who" class, next week's session will take place at the Palace Theater. Anyone can attend. There will also be a cosplay competition, a screening of the classic story "The Caves of Androzani" (voted the best classic "Doctor Who" story of all time) and K-9 will be there.