There have been endless Doctor Who stories based on making some kind of an insect or small creature bigger and using that as the basis of a race of aliens. We have had giant ants and butterflies (The Web Planet), giant crabs (The Macra Terror), giant maggots and flies (The Green Death), giant snails (The Twin Dilemma), giant wasps (The Unicorn and the Wasp), giant beetles (Turn Left), and so on. Have a wild guess about what creepy crawly is super-sized for Planet of the Spiders. During the 60s, the annual range barely let a story go by without some kind of a giant insect. It’s a very easy and obvious way to create a scary race of aliens, often playing on a phobia. Delta and the Bannermen does something much more subtle and clever, taking the social structure of bees as the starting point of the story, and building an alien race from that. This achieves a sense of the alien that no amount of dodgy CSO could manage.
This is our second story in a row (arguably third) where good ideas are marred by some questionable acting, but that’s going to keep happening so we can just take that as read from now on. But for me the measure of a good story is much more to do with the ideas and themes, particularly during the Classic series, where we get at least one performance that makes us wince in just about every story. Let’s not use acting as a stick to beat a McCoy story, when we would be more inclined to overlook it for a Tom Baker or a Troughton. Yes, it is unfortunate that the problem starts right at the top, and we’re not really used to that with Doctor Who, but for me the acting talent on display is not a whole lot more significant than the quality of the special effects: just one element that has an impact on our enjoyment of the story, but not the be-all-and-end-all. Broadly speaking, I want a Doctor Who story to do one of two things (or both together): (a) be scary, or (b) do something new and interesting. Delta very much falls into the second category.
Having said that, although it may not be the scariest of Doctor Who stories, there is something troubling about the way some of the good guys get casually dispatched by the Bannermen, particularly Ken Dodd’s Tollmaster. For the second story in a row we basically get alien Nazis, with little subtlety and far less exploration of motivations here than in Paradise Towers. These are simply genocidal monsters who look human. But if that’s the approach you are going for with villains, then you might as well go big with it:
GAVROK: I can see that you have done your best. Let him go.
TOLLMASTER: Thank you. Oh, thank you. Thank you, thank you, sir. Thank you, thank you gentlemen. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
…and then Gavrok shoots him in the back. For a comedy character played by a popular comedian to be dispatched so cruelly and without purpose really establishes the kind of villain we are dealing with here, and pulls away the safety net of the usual narrative rules we expect. Compare this to Perkins in Mummy on the Orient Express, and see how that character is handled within the story, and you might see how troubling this moment is for the viewers.
With the level of threat established, the villain then tracks his victim to a holiday camp in Wales. This pulls the same trick of familiarity to the viewers as The Macra Terror, but much more literally. As I mentioned in my article on Macra, these kinds of holiday camps were enormously popular in Britain, and to this day there are still plenty of successful ones in existence. There are lots of Doctor Who stories that take place in little villages, bringing the threat home to the viewers, and a significant number where London gets invaded, but note how either of these options is bringing the threat to a kind of landscape that only a particular demographic of the viewers would call home. Setting a story in a holiday camp brings a level of familiarity that crosses those demographics. And hiding there we have Delta, the last of her race… until she finds herself a boyfriend.
DELTA: You haven’t been eating that, have you?
BILLY: I had to, Delta. I’m not a Chimeron, but if I’m to come with you, then I have to become one.
This brings us to the most interesting aspect of the story. It’s not ideal, because it’s one of those whirlwind sci-fi romances. But in a clever subversion of gender stereotypes, Billy is willing to change who he is for Delta. And some viewers might recognise a significance in that. How often does a person have to make a change on a personal level in order to make a relationship work? Often there has to be some kind of a sacrifice, even something relatively mundane like moving to a different place to be together. Billy goes a huge step beyond that.
MEL: Are Billy and the Doctor all right?
DELTA: Yes. Billy’s just changing.
It is Billy who has to change, to be with his Queen Bee, which brings us right back to that starting point of building an alien race on the social structure of an insect, and it’s a deeply intelligent and layered approach to storytelling. And in the middle of this story, with the last of her race being chased by Nazis who want to commit genocide, Delta goes on a picnic with Billy. It’s one of those moments that people hone in on to criticise the story, misunderstanding what is going on here. Delta knows she might or might not escape with her life, but that won’t mean much either way without Billy. The love story asserts itself and suddenly having a romantic picnic is the most important thing in the universe.
There is a love-conquers-all theme to this that is relatively rare in Doctor Who, and is entirely observational, not judgmental. I’ll take that over a giant wasp any day. RP
The view from across the pond:
When McCoy’s era started, I was truly impressed by the first story, but completely let down by the second. The third might hold sway over the future of the series. Unfortunately, it started off with a very bad message for me. It said, “You’re outgrowing Doctor Who”. It said that at the very beginning when the Doctor and Mel arrive at a place that they have a bad feeling about; but there’s no reason for them to feel badly about it. Then Captain Toothy comes out of a vestibule blowing on a New Year’s Eve streamer to announce that they are the 10 billionth customer and have won a trip to Disneyland in 1959. Since the Doctor could go there on his own anyway, there’s no real excitement to the win. And Captain Toothy, also known as the Tollmaster, played by Ken Dodd, was supposedly a big name for the episode. As an American, this meant nothing to me at the time, and I just wondered why he was popular at all. Further, when the Navarino (which I’m trying to determine if they sound like American Indians or a group of Italians… maybe a combined affair) make their appearance, they are squiggly armed aliens which blunder onto the screen looking like Sesame Street monsters or a Teletubbies precursor; let’s just say it would be too embarrassing to be watched in front of peers! Then, to add still more salt to the wound, a bus is going to be used as a cloaked spaceship, obviously, where they will fly to Disneyland. Of course, it isn’t Disneyland but Shangri La, some Welsh village that all of about 12 people ever go to. Here’s the worst bit: all that is just the start. Yes, all of that is in episode one. Later we get another been-there-done-that moment. In 1983, which would be 4 years before this story, a series came out called V about humanoid aliens who come to Earth to eat us. Under their skin, they look like reptiles. When a human and a Visitor have a child (because they don’t all want to eat us), we get our first look at a half-breed (or Hybrid, if we want to irritate the Time Lords). So when Delta wants to raise her V child, it’s nothing new for veteran science fiction TV viewers. It lacks the punch we would hope for. Oh, and then there’s the Bannerman. We’re talking some sort of weird biker gang mixed with fans of Gene Simmons from Kiss. The moment they all stand in a line showing their long tongues, they lose any credibility of a real threat. And are we to believe that these aliens are big on motorcycles on their planet?
In that middle ground of things that don’t work but don’t destroy the story were things like Billy falling for Delta and, because he eats Delta’s food, turns into one of her people. It’s akin to eating honey turning us into bees, I guess. Ray’s unrequited love for Billy seems like a waste because Ray could have replaced Mel, but that didn’t happen so Ray ends up losing Billy for no reason in the grand scheme. Ray might have made a nice addition to the crew too, although I did love Ace, but there’s no reason we could not have had both on board! As for the clothing throughout the story, it is far too loud and very 1980’s right from the landing pad with Ken Dodd to Delta and her shiny glitter-attire which is counterintuitive for a story taking place in the 1950’s!
Meatloaf may be right in some sense that “2 out of 3 ain’t bad” but episodically this was exactly the opposite. 2 of the 3 stories were not playing out very well and it would be up to Dragonfire to sort that out. (Thankfully, I enjoyed Dragonfire and Kane’s melting face told me I had not yet outgrown Doctor Who!) So while I firmly stand behind the idea that the McCoy era was one of halves, Delta and the Bannermen has something going for it that makes it different from its predecessor. It was fun. Some aspects of the story, as we sometimes say, best not to think about! But if you go in watching for 3 episodes (which total just over an hour anyway), you realize that Hawk and Weismuller are a marvelous double act and they are completely loveable. They’re two old guys who like being around each other even though they squabble like grumpy old men. They make the story work because they are delightful to watch. And the 50’s music, of which I’m not even typically a fan, is perfectly selected; every track is a winner. The upbeat ending on Happy Days was proof enough that good days were still coming in Doctor Who. “Happy days are here again…”
I intend to create a chart where I rank the episodes per season to see how I feel about them. As we’ve only about 15% of the show left to write about, now is a good time to start. I definitely feel Delta and the Bannermen is one of McCoy’s weaker stories, but it towers over the one that precedes it! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Dragonfire