A Special Look at: The Leisure Hive

The Leisure Hive is the story of Season 18, the final season to feature Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, as well as the first season with John Nathan-Turner as the new showrunner who instituted many changes to the show, including the title sequence, new TARDIS interior, and new attire for the Doctor. Nathan-Turner would additionally serve as the last showrunner to boot. Notably, this story begins a season-long arc involving entropy, which would come up in every story, such as The Keeper of Traken. It would also predict the Doctor’s regeneration with the episode one cliffhanger having the Doctor seemingly torn limb from limb, as well as having him artificially age several hundred years, the latter of which would also occur in The Sound of Drums.

According to A Brief History of Time (Travel) on the production of the story:

Throughout Season Seventeen, the outgoing Doctor Who production team of producer Graham Williams and script editor Douglas Adams had tried unsuccessfully to attract new writers to the programme. As a result, they had had to rely on veteran Doctor Who contributors, while also leaving few viable scripts in development for Williams’ successor, John Nathan-Turner. Nathan-Turner, too, decided that he wanted to attract both new writers and new directors to Doctor Who. However, he and executive producer Barry Letts were also keen to downplay the programme’s humorous and fantastical tendencies in favour of a renewed concentration on more legitimate science. This was out of keeping with those few scripts — such as Pennant Roberts’ “Erinella” and Alan Drury’s “The Tearing Of The Veil” — that remained under consideration for Season Eighteen.

At this point, Nathan-Turner had no script editor to aid him in the commissioning process, so he too was forced to turn to a familiar Doctor Who name: David Fisher. For Season Seventeen, Fisher had written The Creature From The Pit as well as a set of scripts which had evolved into City Of Death. More recently, he had been discussing an idea called “The Psychonauts” with Adams. On November 7th, soon after Nathan-Turner took over the producer’s chair, Fisher wrote him with another idea entitled “The Castle Of Doom”. Nathan-Turner, on the other hand, preferred an idea of Fisher’s called “The Argolins” that Adams had rejected in early 1979, which was set in a futuristic holiday camp. With Letts’ help, Nathan-Turner developed a more detailed storyline which was then despatched to Fisher so that he could flesh them out into full scripts. These were commissioned under the title “Avalon” on December 20th.

Initially, Fisher strived to maintain some of the same comedic elements that he had invested in his earlier Doctor Who adventures. He envisaged “Avalon” as a pastiche of gangster movies, and even took the name Foamasi from an anagram of “mafiosa”. However, more and more of Fisher’s humour was winnowed out during the story’s development, by which time Christopher H Bidmead — who shared Nathan-Turner and Letts’ vision of a more serious Doctor Who — had come aboard as script editor. Fortunately, Fisher had done some research into tachyonics via the New Statesman, and so could supply the element of hard science that the new production team wanted.

The opening scene of “Avalon”, set on the beach at Brighton, was added at Nathan-Turner’s request. No one in the new production team was fond of K·9 — whose departure from Doctor Who was planned for later in Season Eighteen — and the producer was eager to write him out of stories. Nathan-Turner also thought that the robot dog’s surprise near-destruction would come as an intriguing shock to viewers. “Avalon” was pegged as the first story in both broadcast and production order, and was designated Serial 5N.

One aspect of Doctor Who that Nathan-Turner keenly wanted to focus on was its visual style. The producer felt that there was a lot of money to be made by marketing the programme correctly, and to this end he decided that it was time to overhaul several aspects of the show, beginning with the title sequence. The current “time tunnel” version had been used, with minor changes, since The Time Warrior in 1973. Now Nathan-Turner tasked Sid Sutton of the BBC Graphics Department with the development of a completely new sequence. To date, the Doctor Who titles had been disorienting and claustrophobic, so Sutton decided that he would instead introduce a starscape-style animation. He also devised a new, neon-tube Doctor Who logo.

In the same vein, Nathan-Turner thought that Doctor Who characters would be more marketable if they wore the same clothes in each story, like a uniform. This would also save money on new costumes for each serial. Although Lalla Ward, playing Romana, was insistent that she continue to have a substantial say in how her character was dressed, Nathan-Turner asked June Hudson — the designer assigned to Serial 5N — to come up with a new outfit for Tom Baker’s Doctor. Hudson maintained the same basic design (most notably the lengthy scarf) as had previously been used for the Doctor’s garb, but selected a predominantly burgundy colour scheme in place of the original brown. Question marks were also added to the Doctor’s shirt collar, at Nathan-Turner’s request.

After some experimentation, the producer also decided to use electronic compositions by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop as incidental music — something which had not been attempted on Doctor Who since the early Seventies. In recent years, Dudley Simpson had been writing the score for virtually every serial, which he then recorded with the help of a small number of musicians. Early in 1980, Nathan-Turner took Simpson out to dinner to inform him of the new status quo, bringing to an end the composer’s fifteen-year association with Doctor Who. Nathan-Turner also asked Peter Howell of the Radiophonic Workshop to devise a new arrangement of the familiar Doctor Whotheme music. This was not a new idea, but the previous attempt in 1972 had ended with the rearranged tune being rejected at the last minute.

In keeping with his desire to bring new directors onto Doctor Who, Nathan-Turner secured the services of Lovett Bickford for “Avalon”. Bickford was a former production assistant who had worked with Nathan-Turner on The Pallisers; he had also been an assistant floor manager on Doctor Who in the mid-Sixties, working on The War Machines and The Moonbase. More recently, Bickford had served as a director on programmes such as Angels and The History Of Mr Polly (which had been produced by Letts). Bickford was eager to record “Avalon” in the style of a feature film, replete with unusual camera angles, single-camera takes and the use of a handheld camera.

By the start of March, Serial 5N had gained its final title of The Leisure Hive. Work on Doctor Who‘s eighteenth production block began with two days — March 20th and 21st — at Brighton Beach. This saw the introduction of a new fibreglass TARDIS prop to replace the battered wooden version in use since 1976. The opportunity was taken to reintroduce a more historically-accurate stacked roof, as had been employed when Doctor Who debuted in 1963. The TARDIS had sported a flat roof since the mid-Sixties.

Unfortunately, Baker was unwell as recording got under way, and his mood was further affected by a downturn in his relationship with Ward. The two had decided to end their romantic liaison at the conclusion of shooting on Season Seventeen in December. Now, however, Baker yearned to rekindle their affair, while Ward was content to leave things as they were. As a result, both stars were soon refusing to speak to one another. The star’s attitude was at least mollified somewhat by his cordial working relationship with Nathan-Turner — a marked change from the acrimony that had passed between Baker and Graham Williams.

The first studio session for The Leisure Hive took place in BBC Television Centre Studio 1. Originally, this was scheduled as a two-day block, but Bickford lobbied for a third day so he could experiment with cutting-edge Quantel image processing equipment. Work began on April 2nd with effects shots for the visidome screens. These were completed the next day, when material in the Great Hall and the boardroom was also shot. This included the sequence of the TARDIS arriving on Argolis; thanks to Quantel, the time machine could now be seen materialising while the camera was moving. More scenes in the Great Hall were completed on April 4th, along with those in the shuttle and the effects shots of the squash game and the faked hologram. The baby Pangol was played by Alys Dyer, whose mother was production unit manager Angela Smith.

Unfortunately, Bickford’s avant garde approach had now caused The Leisure Hive to fall catastrophically behind schedule. The second studio block, originally intended to span three days, now had to be extended to a fourth day to ensure that all the necessary scenes would be captured. In the event, this session took place in TC3 from April 18th to 21st. The Great Hall, boardroom and laboratory sets were in use on each of the first three days. April 18th also saw material in the cabin and the long corridor taped, followed by scenes in the Tachyon Recreation Generator and some model shots on the 19th, and further sequences in the long corridor on the 20th. Finally, April 21st dealt with material in the Generator, Brock’s cabin, the long corridor, and the Hive exterior, as well as the remaining model shots.

The severe cost overruns on The Leisure Hive ensured that Bickford would never again be assigned to Doctor Who. His subsequent credits included The Olympian Way; Bickford now works as a producer. Nathan-Turner himself was reprimanded by his BBC superiors for allowing the situation on The Leisure Hive to get so desperately out of hand. This was also Fisher’s final Doctor Who serial. He later wrote episodes of Hammer House Of Horror and Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense, and collaborated with former Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read on a number of non-fiction books.

The Leisure Hive part one marked the start of Doctor Who‘s eighteenth broadcast season when it was aired on August 30th. Unfortunately, despite Nathan-Turner’s efforts to revamp the show, it fared badly against ITV’s glossy American import, Buck Rogers In The 25th Century. Fewer than six million viewers showed up for the season premiere — the smallest such figure since The Smugglers led off Season Four. To make matters worse, Doctor Who‘s audience declined over the course of The Leisure Hive: by episode three, the programme had fallen out of the Top 100 programmes for the week for the first time since its very first story, 100,000 BC back in 1963. Although no one could know it at the time, it was an early sign of the tumult that awaited Doctor Who throughout the Eighties…

Although the new title sequence would grow on me during the Fifth Doctor tenure, I would never grow to enjoy the ridiculous question marks on the Doctor’s attire, which was just a bit too much heavy handed for my personal taste.  I much prefer those sort of elements to be properly melded within the fabric of show, subtly, much like Fringe. According to the Doux Reviews review on the story:

Even without the new look, ‘The Leisure Hive’ would still be a very dull story. The are way too many scenes that consist of nothing but people standing around talking about tacheons or corporate takeovers. The plot seems to have been lifted wholesale from an episode of Scooby Doo. Think about it, it’s set at an old amusement park where someone in disguise (in this case an alien disguised as a human rather than the other way round) is sneaking around, causing all sorts of trouble, so they can take over the park. And they would haven gotten away with it too if it weren’t for those meddlesome Time Lords.

There have been worse script-editors but there’s something about Chris Bidmead (which is how I’m going to call him because I know it would irritate him) that just gets on my nerves. Maybe it’s the fact he created Adric, or his arrogant assumption that his way is the best (and only) way to make Doctor Who. But I think it has to be the fact that he sucked the fun and magic out of the series, turning it into a one long boring science lecture about entropy.

Bidmead took the show too seriously. He wanted Doctor Who to be proper science fiction with the emphasis firmly on the science rather than the fiction. That’s all right if you’re writing for Star Trek, but this is show about a mad man with a magic box that’s bigger on the inside. Calling Doctor Who silly is a redundant accusation. Of course it’s silly. It’s meant to be silly. Silliness is an essential part of the show. It’s absurd! Bonkers even. And that’s why we love it. But the silliness should be kept firmly on a leash, not sent off to a farm in the country. Hard science has no place in the Doctor’s world. Frankly, it’s boring and no one loathes boring more than the Doctor.

It wasn’t just the fans who didn’t appreciate what the new production team were trying to do. By phasing out the humour and upping the scientific lingo, JNT and Bidmead alienated the show’s stars. Lalla Ward had already decided to leave, unhappy with the direction the show was taking since Williams and Adams’ departure. And she wasn’t the only one. Due to a mixture of illness and boredom, Tom Baker couldn’t be arsed to give it his all any more. He wanders through most of this season almost half asleep, eager for the director to call cut so he can nip off to the BBC bar for a quick one. Baker wasn’t happy with the material he was being provided with or that Nathan-Turner was less willing to listen to his suggestions for improvements. This would all factor into his eventual decision to leave the series.

According to the m0vie blog review:

Look what you’ve done.

What have I done?

You’ve got the century wrong, you’ve got the season wrong and you’ve got K9’s sea-water defences wrong.

Well, I can’t get everything right.

Just something would be a help.

– Romana and the Doctor really do seem like an old married couple, don’t they?

The Leisure Hive represented a bold new beginning for the show, as it saw John Nathan-Turner move into the role of producer, very quickly putting his mark on the show with a new theme tune and opening sequence, a stronger emphasis on science-fiction and arguably a very “gimmick-y” approach to the show itself. Nathan-Turner would go on to be the longest-serving – and most controversial – producer of the show, serving in the role until the series’ untimely cancellation in 1989. It really is quite tough to discuss The Leisure Hive without getting side-tracked on to any number of tangents, isn’t it?

I suppose I should probably offer my opinions on Nathan-Turner, and they are that his time in charge was a mixed bag – not brilliant, but by no means as terrible as his detractors would claim. I’d make the case that Nathan-Turner produced any number of gems, but that the quality was at its most wildly inconsistent during his tenure – a fact in evidence in this opening season. After all, this was a show that followed The Caves of Androzani with The Twin Dilemma.

What’s interesting – and it’s something I’ll probably talk about (or already have talked about) in discussions of later stories – is that Nathan-Turner effectively killed the show by trusting it to its fans. Doctor Who started to pander to the hardcore continuity nerds, cultivating an audience of die-hard fans and followers, perhaps losing sight of the mainstream appeal of the series. You can see the change occur quite rapidly here.

Compare, for example, the low-key mid-episode reveal of the Master in The Keeper of Traken with the end-of-episode cliffhanger reveal of the Cybermen in Earthshock. One was a nice plot beat that made sense whether you were a fan or not; the other made little sense to anyone who had only joined after Tom Baker’s first year in the role. (And, even if they had seen Revenge of the Cybermen, would the audience be that happy to see them again?)

While the shift towards the fans became more pronounced in the years that followed, Nathan-Turner began interacting with the fandom directly, converting Doctor Who Weekly (a comic-driven fanzine) to Doctor Who Monthly (an official companion piece) and allowing fans inside access to the workings of the show. As the brilliant Philip Sandifer summarises on the wonderful TARDIS Eruditorum:

Let’s say that again, because it’s a fact about the magazine that is absolutely crucial to everything that’s going to happen over the next decade that is nevertheless almost wholly unremarked on. Durng the Williams era, which the magazine overlapped for a good few months, the magazine did not actually directly refer to what was going on in Doctor Who itself at all save for in its letter pages. It was purely a Doctor Who comic book with some text pieces. Then John Nathan-Turner took over and began implementing the obvious practice of actually connecting to the TV series. This started with a location report of the Brighton filming for The Leisure Hive, then continued with photo previews of upcoming stories, interviews with Nathan-Turner, the magazine’s first ever review of a televised story (Jeremy Bentham’s exceedingly congratulatory take on The Leisure Hive, which went out of its way to credit John Nathan-Turner with immediately improving the show’s quality), an end-of-season retrospective with John Nathan-Turner, etc.

In other words, as of this story Doctor Who began historicizing itself even as it was made. The paratext (a term in literary criticism and theory that basically means “all the stuff about a book that isn’t the actual string of characters constituting the book” – i.e. the cover, the advertising, interviews with the author, etc) of Doctor Who is, as of now, part of Doctor Who. And this is not something that has ever or will ever stop. From The Leisure Hive on any competent reading of Doctor Who has to remain aware of the paratext because the paratext is genuinely part of the storytelling. Things happen on screen that have dramatic resonance provided to them by what happens off-screen.

It’s a very dangerous approach, and one that I credit for the eventual mess the show became – a series that relied too heavily on continuity and too reliant on proving itself “mature” and “sophisticated” while being anything but. I’m more fond of the Nathan-Turner era than most, and I can understand his attempt to court the fans. In the United States, for example, fans had kept Star Trek alive. However, fandom is a very selfish and insecure demographic, and attracting a rapid fandom often comes at the cost of a broader appeal, as you find yourself playing more and more to a particular group of people to the expense of others.

Still, despite all this, I don’t doubt for one second that he had the best intentions of the show at heart, and it would be unfair to place the blame for all the problems with the show at his feet. More often than other producers, it seems that Nathan-Turner relied on his script editor – he was more concerned with the trappings than the plotting. His willingness to trust his script editors led to Eric Saward’s excessively grim aesthetic clashing with his pantomime style, effectively dooming the Colin Baker era. However, it also allowed Andrew Cartmel a great deal of freedom to bring the show briefly back to greatness before it ended.

All that is yet to come, though. Even here, it’s hard to defend some of the producer’s fondness for cheap gimmickry – evident here in the question marks on the Doctor’s clothing, something that would add an air of pantomime to all that followed, not to mention some dire stunt casting. All that said, I think he made some generally good decisions early on, the most obvious being to tone down the camp of his predecessor, ditch K-9 and give Baker what seems like a relatively grand send-off with a season-long thematic arc.

In fact, that season-long theme of entropy and decay is handled so well that it almost makes me forget how incredibly frustrating Logopolis turned out to be. It’s quite poetic that Baker, the most iconic and recognisable Doctor with some of the show’s very best stories, should have ended up with such disappointing opening and closing episodes. I love the opening shot of The Leisure Hive, a long and slow establishing shot of Brighton beach, with the gloomy clouds overhead and no real sign of civilisation to be seen, save the Doctor, Romana and K-9. It establishes the mood of the year so perfectly: this is the end, old age, dying alone.

I’d argue that the theme of entropy, sewn through this particularly uneven season of Doctor Who, is perhaps one of the strongest season-long arcs that the show has ever done. I honestly think that using a theme to unite episodes works much better than an over-arching plot like The Key to Time saga or Moffat’s “who is River Song?” stuff, if only because the stories on the show tend to work better if they stand alone without intrusive narrative elements. So while a viewer might be frustrated that Night Terrors doesn’t pick up the threads from Let’s Kill Hitler, all that Warrior’s Gate has to worry about is continuing the theme of decay from the earlier episodes of the season. So it’s possible for fans to follow a theme, while casual viewers aren’t locked out by particulars.

It does feel like a grand send-off is being planned for the Doctor, and Tom Baker gives his best performance in quite some time, more subdued than he had been during the Graham Williams tenure of the show. It actually reminds me of the more subdued performances he gave during the Hinchcliffe era, which is undoubtedly a very good thing. Apparently Baker had been sick while preparing for the serial (and while filming) and he certainly looks it. Even before the Doctor is aged by five centuries, he feels much older and less healthy than we remember – it helps give the impression of inevitability to what is coming.

Of course, we’ve managed to get this far without discussing The Leisure Hive itself, which is a shame. As a story, it really doesn’t deserve to get overshadowed by all the bigger details surrounding it. The Leisure Hive is one of those Doctor Who adventures where my opinion diverges quite a bit from the consensus – while fans have never seemed too hostile to the adventure, they’ve never been too positive about it either, and most would seem to describe it as mediocre. I actually really like it – I love it, in fact. It’s funny, but it seems that David Fisher stories tend to do that with me – I dislike Stones of Blood far more than most, but I also have greater affection than the majority for The Androids of Tara.

Supposedly, The Leisure Hive was one of those carry-over scripts from the Graham Williams team, in much the same way that Image of the Fendahl was carried over from the Hinchcliffe team. It was deemed to be the only script from Douglas Adams’ tenure as script editor that was deemed usable by the new production staff. In fact, you can sense something of a Douglas Adams vibe around the story, which presents a relatively high concept take on what sounds like “hard” science. Still, it feels decidedly like a Nathan-Turner story, so much so that you could almost imagine the Fifth Doctor wandering into the same situation.

The science of the story, although couched in terms like “tachyon” and with reference to quantum physics, doesn’t especially impress me. It’s more the fascinating work that Fisher does with the Argolans, and the way that he portrays a society on a planet that “won’t be habitable for three-hundred years”, in the wake of a war that only took twenty minutes. There’s a sense of finality about it, particularly when the Doctor remarks that the Leisure Hive itself is “an Argolan farewell gesture”, a tomb where the dead just happen to be walking around. It really does create a sense of a society on the verge of complete collapse, and the atmosphere is heavy throughout – helped by elements like the prematurely-aged Doctor and the sense that the predators are already circling the corpse.

You could argue that the serial doesn’t play entirely fair, offering the Foamasi as a red herring villain for the first three parts before playing a last-minute bait-and-switch by revealing Pangol as the real bad guy. You could argue that it’s a rather blatant attempt at misleading the audience, but I like it. It allows us to establish the mood and the characters before the real threat reveals itself. It helps that there are plenty of signs beforehand, and that the reveal is handled so well. That moment where Pangol reveals that the Argolans aren’t quite as dead as most people would think is a brilliant twist, and one that has been right in front of us the whole time. If the Argolans have been sterile for forty years, how is Pangol so young? “But how old do you think I am, Mister Brock?” is a great moment.

Indeed, I think that Pangol’s military ambitions lend the serial quite a bit of dramatic depth, as it reflects the very real fear of a generation that never knew full-scale war. The Argolan War was forty years ago, much like the Second World War was when the serial originally aired. People were coming of age who had never seen the horrors of global conflict. Indeed, Pangol’s thirst for conflict and violence, in conflict to the elders’ quest for peace, reflects the sort of nationalist sentiment that led to the Second World War in the first place, as Germany suffered the reparations inflicted on them in the wake of the First World War. History repeats.

However, perhaps Pangol reflects a more modern fear, the rise of the Neo-Nazi movement in the late seventies, especially on mainland Europe. “And he will be avenged,” Pangol claims of the dictator who led the planet to ruin. “We, Pangol, the child of the Generator, will fulfil his dreams of great conquests.” He uses terms like “the fulfilment of Argolan destiny” and displays fervoured racism (which had been masquerading as misplaced nationalism), dismissing Romana as “alien trash.” It’s a very potent and very daring observation for the show to make, perhaps reiterating the same sorts of fears that Terry Nation had poured into The Daleks.

Director Lovett Bickford does a great job handling the adventure. I’ve already mentioned the superb opening shots, but he does a great job with the Foamasi, which are basically just men in silly green suits. Seemingly aware of the limitations of the costume, Bickford cleverly decides to hide them from us until the third part of the adventure, favouring to build atmosphere with silhouettes and close shots of their claws. The entire adventure seems well-paced and foreboding, which is really quite wonderful. Apparently Bickford ran significantly over budget, and so was never asked to return to the series. It’s a shame, because The Leisure Hive benefits from absolutely fantastic direction.

I’ll close with the observation that Russell T. Davies appears to have a fondness for the story as well, as elements from it seem to keep popping up in his scripts for the revived series. A prematurely aged Doctor was included in The Last of the Time Lords, while Aliens of London featured aliens wearing “human suits.” Hell, the follow-up to that adventure, Boom Town, even ended with the villain in question deaged to the point where she became a baby, much like the ultimate fate of Pangol here. Davies has a tendency to channel underrated stories for his work (with Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways seeming to draw heavily from Colin Baker’s time in the lead role), so The Leisure Hive is certainly in good company.

I really like The Leisure Hive – I think it’s really a great story that is somewhat overshadowed by all the behind-the-scenes goings-on around the show at the time. It’s a shame, because it’s clever and insightful and well-made, which is really something worth celebrating.

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