A little taste of the times…
Christmas 1974 positively sparkled with an excellent, perhaps the most excellent, adaptation of David Copperfield starring Patience Collier, Martin Jarvis, Arthur Lowe and Jacqueline Pearce whilst in 1975, Crackerjack’s Christmas Pantomime, Robinson Crusoe, featured Windsor Davies, Don Estelle, John Inman and John Lawrie, a different kind of sparkle perhaps.
Both Christmases were lit up by the annual Dr Who Christmas Omnibus: Planet of the Spiders in 1974 and Genesis of the Daleks in 1975.
And in 1976..?
1974: Dr Who
Friday 27th December, 2.45-4.30pm
1.10 Grandstand – introduced by Tony Gubba
2.45 Dr Who: Planet of the Spiders
4.30 The All Star record Breakers
5.00 National News – with Richard Whitmore
5.10 Tom and Jerry [Regional News – not London]
5.20 Top of the Pops – Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis
‘A complete adventure in one programme starring Jon Pertwee as Dr Who… A Tibetan style monastery in rural England; a stage magician with uncanny powers; an alien crystal… these are the strands of the sinister web woven by the Metabelis Spiders’ – Radio Times billing.
Or Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker – again.
Even the fact that this omnibus began not at 4.00 or 3.30 but at 2.45pm was exciting to me as a ten year old. The earlier time made the screening feel somehow more ‘urgent’ and it was less long to have to wait.
For all its shortcomings and accusations of indulgence (actually the much criticised chase takes up only half of episode 2) Planet of the Spiders remains underappreciated. A well-crafted story arc gently builds on seeds sewn in The Time Monster (the Doctor’s teacher), The Green Death (Jo) and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Mike Yates) to provide a coherent and poignant close to the Pertwee era.
Thus a moral tale (the emptiness of power, the innate healing quality power of mind, surrender of ego followed by rebirth) coupled with an end-of-an era, retrospective feel makes for an ideal Christmas recipe.
The regeneration game
Most touchingly of all, this was transmitted only the day before Part 1 of Robot in which Tom Baker picks up the mantle and a whole new era of Dr Who begins. “Tears, Sarah Jane?” I’m sure I shed some of my own as my familiar white-haired hero was transformed before my eyes into a brown curly-haired stranger for a no less traumatic second time.
As a six-parter, this would have been 2.30 in episode format, so approximately 45 minutes have been lost.
8.6 million viewers tuned in as against a shade over nine million viewers on average for the original. Throughout the two weeks of Christmas and New Year, BBC-1 showed Holiday Star Trek each weekday morning at 11.45am. Possibly this may have bumped-up Planet of the Spiders‘ viewing figures.
ITV screen the film Half a Sixpence at 2.25 all the way up to Looks Familiar at 4.50.
Planet of the Spiders is the first omnibus repeat still held in the BBC archives and is included on the DVD release along with the trailer.
No illustrations accompany the billing in Radio Times but on the Saturday 28th December page we have a Pertwee-Baker transmutation across four photos as if in imitation of the superb Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special artwork which blended the features of the first three doctors across a double-page spread, thus creating Hartnell-Troughton and Troughton-Pertwee hybrids. This Pertwee-Baker version is rather more basic and it’s clear Pertwee’s head has been matted onto Baker’s be-scarfed body but still it’s a nice try and gets the idea across.
For the first time in the 70s, the new Dr Who season is not marked by a Radio Times cover, odd really considering Tom Baker’s debut the week before. All my research has drawn a blank as to what did make it onto the New Year edition cover.
1975: Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
Saturday 27th December, 3.00-4.25pm
12.15 Grandstand – Introduced by Frank Bough
3.00 Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
4.25 The Basil Brush Show – with Roy North
4.50 Final Score
5.05 News/Weather – with Michael Fish
5.15 It’s Cliff & Friends
5.50 Saturday Night at the Movies: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, mad World
‘A complete adventure in one programme, starring Tom Baker, written by TERRY NATION… The Time Lords have a mission for the Doctor. He finds himself stranded on Skaro -the planet of the Daleks where a war of attrition is reaching its bitter final stages’ – Radio Times billing.
That’s not Terry Nation but TERRY NATION.
Blast off Basil
No really, Blast Off Basil.
In a bizarre reversal of the usual BBC-1 Saturday evening schedule, Dr Who now precedes Basil Brush which is incongruous given Genesis of The Daleks’ hard-edged, adult themes. The omnibus would have benefitted immensely had Basil’s twenty-five minutes been added to its running time. You really need the full exposition to feel the effect.
At the time, I wondered whether the change from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker might signal the end of the Christmas omnibuses. Added to that, Season Thirteen had begun not around Christmas 1975 but back in autumn of that year and so was a little past mid-way by Christmas. There was no longer a need to refresh viewers’ memories and whet their appetites after a six month break.
And yet I was pleased to see Genesis of the Daleks appear in the schedules for 27th December in time honoured fashion. But with approximately 65 minutes removed, it was the most excised of the omnibuses.
The tough cut was presumably to meet the demands of a crowded schedule. In retrospect, it perhaps suggests the BBC losing interest in the idea of Christmas omnibuses.
Even as an eleven year old comparing my memory of the episodic broadcast nine months earlier with this butchered version, I was aware that dramatic impact had been sacrificed. For the first time, I felt less than entirely satisfied.
Having made the change from primary to secondary school three months earlier, in retrospect, my more critical response also seems like one which prefigures adolescence. Three or four years earlier I’d have been grateful for anything.
Added to that, by this time my parents were ignoring Dr Who, my father not being a fan of Tom Baker’s more ironic, send-up style (he really should have seen this though). Watching alone and being in a new house I didn’t warm to took away something of the cosiness.
In Radio Times, Frank Bellamy’s artwork is captioned: ‘The most important mission the Doctor has ever faced – can he prevent Davros creating his Daleks?’ and depicts all three ‘Ds’.
8.5 million viewers tuned in compared to an average of almost 9.6 million for the spring screening.
The ITV Network runs with ski-ing and wrestling as part of its usual Saturday afternoon World of Sport package.
This was the only time an omnibus was screened on a Saturday. The Genesis omnibus was used as a stopgap as there was no Dr Who serial later that day with The Android Invasion’s final episode screened on 13th December and Brain of Morbius not commencing until 3rd Jan 1976.
Bank Holiday Monday 27th December
1.25 [Racing from] Wincanton
2.34 Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland
4.20 The Superstars
5.30 Evening News – with Richard Whitmore
Tuesday 28th December
1.00 Racing Grandstand
2.35 The Nutcracker
4.20 James and the Giant Peach
5.15 Evening News – with Richard Baker
And so to my bitter disappointment on discovering that The Seeds of Doom, my favourite Dr Who story since The Green Death some three years earlier was not to be comped come December.
A repeat was planned but then dropped for unknown reasons. What those were, I can’t imagine. Seeds of Doom even had snow!
The unexplained absence marked the missing of a much-loved tradition. Christmases felt truncated, colder even, accentuated for me by a passing from childhood innocence to self-aware adolescence
1976, aged twelve, was the last year I had a Christmas stocking.
Cold, cold Christmas
Perhaps the omnibuses ended because Dr Who seasons no longer ran January- June. Perhaps new producer Philip Hinchcliffe didn’t favour the format, preferring episodic repeats which became a fairly common feature of the mid-late 70s when scattered across the early-evening weekday schedule usually as summer filler. Or perhaps there were changes to BBC senior management come 1976.
Had the tradition continued, both Seeds of Doom and especially 1977’s Dickensian/Holmesian The Talons of Weng Chiang, with its fog shrouded London streets and mysterious magic cabinet, present themselves as obvious high calibre candidates. I struggle once we reach The Invasion of Time (1978) and The Armageddon Factor (1979) admittedly.
For whatever reason, the Christmas feasts were no more. Inextricably bound to the early-mid 1970s and coinciding exactly with my remembered childhood, the Dr Who Christmas Omnibus tradition had become a magnetic, essential part of my Christmas and still engenders feelings of great warmth forty years on.
Ever since 2005, Dr Who has had a Christmas Special shown on Christmas Day, as if that somehow picked up on a longer established tradition which, like many mythologies, was actually never the case.
A Christmas toast
So perhaps at about 3pm on Tuesday 27th December 2016, I’ll sit down to Seeds of Doom on DVD with a glass of ginger wine and a mince pie or two.
Until then, in the words of William Hartnell in 1966’s The Feast of Steven (the only old Who episode actually broadcast on Christmas Day): “A Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”