For many folks of my generation, Tom Baker will always be The Doctor. In fact, he was the fourth actor to steer the TARDIS but easily the longest-lasting. Such an odd, eccentric character. Floppy hat, Huge scarf. Name-dropping figures from history. The way he listened to a glass before drinking from it… He also proved the very first Doctor to encounter vampires.
The year, 1980. At least as we perceive time. Who knows how the Doctor saw it! He and his companions the Time Lady Romana (Lalla Ward) and boy math wizard Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) find themselves on a planet seemingly stuck in the Middle Ages, where terrified villagers live in thrall of the Lords of the Castle. Each year a ritual called “The Selection” takes place, in which some people of the village go to the tower where the Lords dwell, never to be seen again. All three Lords–Zargo, Camilla and Aukon–seem pale and immortal and remain in the shadows.
Sounds like vampires, yes?
Before long, the Doctor and Romana end up meeting a resistance movement who show them a hidden base that reveals the “tower” to be the remains of space ship. The Lords look identical to the officers of this long-lost vessel, while it seems obvious the ship’s other survivors are the ancestors of everyone else. Sure enough, further investigation reveals the ship’s storage tanks now full of blood! Row and row of dessicated corpses line some chambers, drained to feed…what?
Herein we get a lovely bit of Doctor Who lore. Seems the Doctor had come across a bit of ancient history in his youth, of the last great war the people of Gallifrey (his and Romana’s homeworld) ever fought, back pretty close to the dawn of time. It was against creatures called the Great Vampires–huge, rapacious beings each one capable of draining the life of an entire world. The Time Lords built huge bow ships to launch gigantic lances into the Vampire’s hearts. A long and terrible series of battles later, all but one of the creatures ended up destroyed. All but one. The King Vampire escaped somehow. Now it seems certain where that King dwells. He/it is underneath the space ship. For centuries his “chosen ones” (the Lords) have been pouring the blood of those who vanished in The Selection, helping it heal and grow. Now the time of the Arising approaches, when the King Vampire emerges and his Chosen Ones shall swarm.
Both Adric and Romana are selected to be new Chosen Ones, which brings up a fun coincidence to those of us fascinated by the undead. Lalla Ward, who played Romana, also starred as a vampire in Hammer Studio’s Vampire Circus. Now, in this story, she becomes a vampire’s victim.
Of course the climax of the story involves the Doctor pulling off some marvelous super-technological stunt that destroys the Great Vampire King before it can emerge (and a gloriously cheesy special effect that makes for–a huge hand/glove emerging from the ground). Much of it makes little sense when you really pay attention, but that almost doesn’t matter. It feels fun, and the kind of adventure one would expect from a slightly earlier incarnation of the show. In truth, that is precisely what it is! This episode, originally titled The Vampire Mutation, had been written to kick off Season 15 (this was number 18) but the BBC didn’t want any competition with their plans for a faithful adaptation of Dracula (which ended up starring Louis Jourdain). So the script, put on a shelf for a few years, waited until the new Producer (John Nathan-Turner) decided to use it.
Small wonder, really, that the whole thing feels not unlike a Hammer Horror! Unlike the next vampire episode of Doctor Who (under Sylvester McCoy, the Seventh Doctor) this one lacks personal drama. One gets all the props, all the set pieces, but other than the wonderful scene between the Doctor and Romana in the dungeon, sharing stories of their people’s ancient past, nothing but the plot happens. Perhaps one reason that particular scene works is that Ward and Baker had fallen in love. Indeed, they married in less than a year.
But meanwhile this makes for a wonderfully fun episode, one well worth the viewing. Popcorn is recommended as is turning out the lights.