With Doctor Who off the air for eighteen months everyone involved was, for obvious reasons, interested in finding some way to get some new Doctor Who out. And so they ended up doing a radio series of six ten minute episodes written by Eric Saward. The end home of this series was part of a BBC Radio 4 children’s magazine show entitled Pirate Radio 4. Since he was writing for an overtly children’s audience Saward, to his credit, recognized that his usual space marine action approach was a no go. Accordingly, he channelled Douglas Adams.
Let’s not forget that one of the foundational myths of the Nathan-Turner era is that the show was irrevocably broken by the Graham Williams era and that it was “silly.” Eric Saward was among the pilers-on, accusing the Williams era of insulting the audience. Now, suddenly, he’s trying to mimic the approach of Williams’s script editor?
The problem is that between the time when that myth was laid down – 1980 or so – and 1985 – there’d been a necessary reevaluation of things. In 1980 Douglas Adams was a comedy writer who’d had a decent success with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with the novel coming out towards the end of his time on the show. Accordingly, he could be dismissed as having made the show silly. But 1985 he’d gotten to book four of the trilogy and was a reliably best-selling author. And suddenly he was a major point of legitimacy for Doctor Who – someone the program wanted to boast about its association with instead of boasting about moving past.
But more than that, there is something odd about the spectacle of Eric Saward writing light comedy. I mean, he attempted dark comedy on a regular basis – there’s a great moment in the infamous Starburst interview when, pressed on the idea that Doctor Who isn’t funny anymore, he pointed out that Vengeance on Varos, The Two Doctors, and Revelation of the Daleks are all comedies. Which, I mean, they technically are, but… this is clearly not what those critics meant. This, though, is the only real instance of him doing an extended piece of straightforward comedy in Doctor Who on his own initiative (as opposed to in the course of a salvage job).
It’s not very good, but it’s not very good in the same ways that The Visitation is not very good – a case of the whole being markedly less than the sum of its recycled parts. Many, if not most, of the ideas are genuinely funny, but the story is in many ways wholly encapsulated by the drunk ditz computer, a funny idea that overstays its welcome by a considerable margin. Still, it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation. Doctor Who has always faltered when people attempt explicitly “for children” versions of it. This is no worse than The Pescatons before it or The Infinite Quest after it, if we’re being honest. Indeed, it’s probably better than either.…