Time-storms and space buns
Doctor Who is not what it used to be. This assertion is fast becoming one of fandom's
greatest cliches, but, laying aside the question of quality, it is a statement which can
be proved. The last script-editor of Doctor Who, Andrew Cartmel, introduced changes in the
essence of the programme which have had a profound effect on its direction. It is the
intention of this article to examine just what those changes were, and to define the
meaning of 'Cartmelism' in the context of the series.
Cartmel script-edited three seasons of Doctor Who. These seasons can be split into two
separate sections. The first was Season 24, which is very distinct from its successors. I
think it can be said that the dominantly light-hearted tone of the season can be
attributed to the influence of the producer, John Nathan-Turner.
The majority of the stories throughout Season 24 betray a large element of pantomime,
which is not a peculiar factor in the later Cartmel stories. Nathan-Turner's propensity
for pantomime can be demonstrated by two pieces of evidence. The first is his own
unwitting confirmation of his "penchant for pantomime" on Open Air in September
1987 and in Starburst #113, when he claimed to be "something of an expert" on
it, although he could not recognise any similarities between his frequent Christmas
productions and Doctor Who. Other than his being practically the only person who failed to
see such genre connections, his comments cast a serious doubt over the objectivity of his
views! Further evidence is supplied by casting a glance over the previous five years of
the programme - the style of the previous script-editor Eric Saward. Whatever other
short-comings Saward may have had, they did not include a noticeable pantomime tendency.
However, the influence of the genre is apparent in a couple of stories, namely The Two
Doctors and The Trial of a Timelord #14. Saward came in for a lot of criticism over the
various failings of these episodes, which is rather ironic, considering that none other
than Nathan-Turner was editing these stories. It therefore seems reasonable to see Season
24's pantomimic style firmly emanating from Nathan-Turner, who, in the first year of a new
and inexperienced script-editor, would have had more influence than usual in the shape of
However, Season 24 did introduce one of Cartmel's trademarks - the "oddball"
story, in which the imagination of the writer was encouraged to come up with zany, unusual
ideas. There was nothing wrong with this approach - later stories like The Greatest Show
in the Galaxy and Ghost Light show how successful it could be. Again, the failure and
subsequent stereotyping of the "oddballs" is due to the producer and director's
work. Nathan-Turner's baleful influence can clearly be seen in the Happiness Patrol
costumes, or the 'Mother Goose' scenes in Paradise Towers, for example. In the same story,
the fossilised camera-work of Nicholas Mallett cramped the development of an excellent
script and imaginative characters. Similarly, the incompetence of Chris Clough destroyed
any hope Delta and the Bannermen or The Happiness Patrol had to turn up on the screen as
No, the "oddball" technique was, in general, perhaps the greatest success of
the Cartmel era. Obviously, as with all generalisations, there is an exception, and in
this case two : Delta and the Bannermen, which suffered from a dearth of vaguely sensible
ideas and writing, and The Happiness Patrol, clad in such unlikely and poorly presented
wrapping that the subtle, marvellous allegories beneath were hardly worth delving for!
Look further though - the two best stories of the Cartmel era have been Greatest Show and
Ghost Light. Excellent scripts from the two best writers of the late eighties, Stephen
Wyatt and Marc Platt, and superbly handled by the very talented director, Alan Wareing,
whose grip on the production and photography of his shows is admirable indeed! In addition
there were excellent performances from the cast, probably intrigued by the chance to play
imaginative, well-drawn and exciting characters, and superb set design. It has been
claimed that Doctor Who classics rely primarily on brilliant scripts - and these stories
had both that and first rate direction to make them sparkling tales. The
"oddball" style was a great step forward, bringing the programme out of the
stale, clichd era of Saward, and into a new era of stimulating innovation and
The "oddball" style is only part of what makes up 'Cartmelism'. There are two
other factors involved, and both of these were to the detriment of Doctor Who and are the
real reasons why the Cartmel era is perceived as a critical failure. The first is that the
stories became increasingly complex, culminating in the impossible-to-follow Battlefield
and The Curse of Fenric in Season 26. On the whole, Season 24 differed in this respect,
with the exception of Time and the Rani, a story conceived before Cartmel arrived and one
with which he was reportedly very unhappy. Both Paradise Towers and Bannermen are easy to
follow. They make sense, and there are no gaping holes or loose ends.
Dragonfire was perhaps the first true Cartmel story. It sits ill at ease alongside its
predecessors in Season 24, being both more serious and better produced than them.
Typically there is Cartmel's input, typically mystical in nature : the mystical element of
the Dragon epitomises it. The more serious nature is shown by the villain Kane,
excellently played by Edward Peel, and unhindered by silly realisation. However, the story
is too loosely structured to be considered a complete success - that cliffhanger, the way
in which Ace arrived on Svartos. But Dragonfire can be held up as the precursor of the
elements which increasingly arrived in the show - complexity and seriousness.
The seriousness was another great step forward for the programme after the
Nathan-Turner induced nadir of Season 24. Humour became gentler and slapstick was out,
except in the case of the nauseating Silver Nemesis, although this can be pinned down to
the writer, Kevin Clarke. The Doctor/companion interaction improved vastly, and was well
acted by Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred. Ace was allowed to grow into a character
rather than a cypher. There was a deilberate attempt to increase the Gothic and horror
content of the show - at first with the Daleks, through the Chief Clown in Greatest Show,
and then later with the style of Ghost Light, in such scenes as Ace's nightmare, and the
crafting of The Curse of Fenric. Doctor Who had progressed a long way from such scenes as
the 'toasting-fork' incident at the end of Paradise Towers #2 when the Haemovores attacked
their guardian in Fenric #2, in a scene reeking of Hammer influence.
Cartmel pushed up the complexity of the stories, and ultimately overdid this. Complex
plots are fine as long as they are decipherable. Complex plots which descend into
confusing, illogical ones are not, and this is what happened. Great chunks of Remembrance
of the Daleks, Battlefield and Fenric have been held up and questioned. Small
inconsistencies are now relatively irrelevant! To some extent the reason behind this was
Cartmel's seeming inability to trim scripts down to the time allowed, and Nathan-Turner's
ludicrous choice of what to cut out, seen most clearly in Nemesis and Fenric, the latter
losing about fifteen minutes of plot material! Greatest Show and Ghost Light have also
been cited as part of this 'incomprehensible story' bracket, but I think that they stand
as examples of the complex rather than meaningless stroy, since the stories in both can be
made out with concentration. It is possible that the increase in plot elements arose from
a desire to avoid 'spoon-feeding' the viewers. However, Cartmel often proved to be unable
to control or connect so many separate plot strands.
The final element of 'Cartmelism' is the most damaging of all - a shift in the
perception of the characterisation of the title character and thus an unnecessary
alteration of the entire idea behind the series. Up to the end of Season 24, the Doctor
had always been a wanderer, more often than not (although this was getting less so) unable
to control the destination of his Tardis. He was a nomad in time and space, seeking
knowledge and experience in his erratic machine. He never intervened in a situation unless
specifically required to do so, or unless he had no choice.
It is apparent that Cartmel's re-orientation of the programme began in the planning
stages of Season 25, as is shown by interviews with his writers. This radical approach
revolved around re-introducing the mystery of the programme - who is the Doctor?
Remembrance started an obnoxious trend to suggest that the Doctor was not even a Timelord,
or that he was one of the oldest! His rantings about being Protector of the Laws of Time
looked ridiculous when compared to his past record of being tried for breaking them.
Silver Nemesis, a terribly weak story scripted by a most unprofessional writer who started
writing before doing his research, continued this trend. Lady Peinforte's threats to
reveal everything about the "Old Times" and the Doctor's true identity were just
plain wrong. Past stories had already revealed the Doctor as a contemporary of the current
ruling class of Gallifrey - he was a pupil of Borusa, his bio-data is stored in the
Matrix, proving he is a Timelord, and he seemed just as much in the ark as anyone about
the "Old Times" in The Five Doctors.
Under Cartmel, the Doctor changed overnight into an interstellar troubleshooter,
guiding his Tardis to the site of evil races and emarking on a system of purifying
genocide : Daleks, Cybermen, Fenric, all ruthlessly despatched by the Doctor's unlikely
obsession. He decided to reform Terra Alpha in one night because he had heard bad things!
The Doctor was also invested with an ominiscience which he had never shown before. He was
the manipulator of events to his ends, always external to the situation - he knew what was
going to happen! His all enveloping knowledge even formed a contradiction in Survival :
having told Patterson that not a lot was known about the Cat-people, he went on to recount
their hunting habits. Part of the reason why Greatest Show and Ghost Light stand as the
most successful Cartmel stories is because this new aspect of the Doctor was, in the main,
buried. However, he irritatingly knew all about the Gods of Ragnarok and deliberately went
to Perivale to confront Ace with her fears! Coupled with this entirely new-found knowledge
was a new ominpotence - hypnotising people with a twitch of the head in Battlefield and
knocking Patterson out with, of all things, a touch from his finger! The suggestion that
Cartmel was setting the Doctor up as Rassilon almost seems credible!
Cartmel rudely dispensed with the rich heritage of the programme, built up over
twenty-four years, and created his own which bore no resemblance to what had gone before -
Wyatt admitted to a "conscious junking of mythology". Ironically, far from
heightening the mystery of the series, as many misguided fans believe, it lessened it! Now
that the Doctor knew all about everyone and everything and was the sole shaper of events,
frankly what appeal or 'mystery' did the programme hold to a general audience?
This 'New Mythology' is the main constituent of 'Cartmelism'. Regardless of quality, it
is just plain wrong. It destroyed the inherent continuity that must be at the heart of all
series, in much the same way as the alterations to Avon's character in the fourth series
of Blake's 7 have been accused of doing to that show. It weakens the structure of the
programme and strikes at its raison d'etre. There were better aspects. The
"oddball" style brought the series into innovative and imaginative settings, and
the efforts to reintroduce seriousness strengthened the programme's mettle. Cartmel has
left perhaps the most distinctive mark on Doctor Who as a script-editor, perhaps even more
so than Robert Holmes.
Issue five contents
Five Hundred Eyes index