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If we were to begin this review by adapting the opening crawl of The Empire Strikes Back, it would read something along these lines…

’It was a dark period for Doctor Who. Though the hiatus was over, Darth Grader had driven the show to cast a comedy performer in the title role…’

OK, it’s pretty thin, but Doctor Who had indeed entered a difficult period (there are some who would argue that this time commenced with Peter Davison’s departure from the show until cancellation was a difficult period); with a new actor in place to play the Doctor, the signs were not good to begin with.

Doctor Who: Delta & the Bannermen
Sylvester McCoy’s first season opened with the ghastly ‘Time and the Rani’, which saw the most preposterous regeneration to grace the show (and still hasn’t been topped to date, though the faux-regeneration seen at the end of ‘The Stolen Earth’ comes pretty close) and the continuation of Bonnie Langford’s Melanie Bush, as well as having a story and production values that made audiences brought up on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica (the seventies one—y’know, the proper one…) wince.  This was swiftly followed by ‘Paradise Towers’, which saw more of John Nathan-Turner’s insistence on having comedy actors coming aboard as guests ( New-Who continued this trend, with Russell T Davies doing the same bloody thing)—the least said about ‘Paradise Towers’ and Richard Briers the better.

By the time that the third story in series twenty-four rolled around, there were some long-term Who fans who were beginning to despair. Sylvester McCoy had brought his light comedic touch to the role and initially, his Doctor was one that bumbled and mixed his metaphors, but this did not go down to well with many of the faithful and McCoy’s initial portrayal was looked upon as the final nail in the coffin of Doctor Who.

As most fans know, script editor Andrew Cartmel eventually turned the Seventh Doctor into a much darker and mercurial character, one who stood back and manipulated people and situations to his advantage. But this all happened after the story we are looking at here, so let’s jump into ‘Delta and the Bannermen’…

The story opens with Chimeron Queen, Delta (Belinda Mayne), flees from the approaching Bannermen (led by Gavrok, played by Don Henderson) and steals their spaceship. She lands the ship at Tollport G715, just as the Doctor and Mel are claiming their prize of a trip to Disneyland. Delta stows away on the intergalactic bus just as it leaves, with the Doctor and Ace onboard. A collision with a certain US-launched satellite causes the bus to make an emergency landing in 1959 Wales and whilst the power crystals of the bus is re-energised, the space-tourists spend their time in the nearby Shangri-La holiday camp.

Doctor Who: Delta & the Bannermen
Though Delta is the last of her race, a box in her possession is revealed to contain an egg and it hatches, but the Bannermen are soon in pursuit and the Doctor and Mel are roped into helping to ensure that Delta and the young Chimeron child escape from the Bannermen, who have tracked them to Shangri-La.

Around the time that this story was written, Langford announced that she wanted to leave at the end of the season—this disappointed JNT, but delighted the viewing nation. JNT then asked ‘D&tB’ writer Malcolm Kohll and Ian Briggs (writer of the following story ‘Dragonfire’) to both come up with a potential replacement companion—though Briggs ultimately won with Ace, Kohll’s character of Ray is an interesting one and, with a few little tweaks here and there, could have fitted quite nicely as a regular in the Doctor Who world, although whether or not audiences would take to a tomboyish, motorbike-riding Welsh companion at the time is open to debate.

‘Delta and the Bannermen’ is maddening to watch—the story has been constantly cited by hardened Who fans as one of the worst (if not the worst) story to be commissioned in the run of the original series—the sense of frustration comes from the fact that there is an interesting concept afoot, but the production and execution combined to produce something that causes fans to recoil in horror at the very mention of the title.

The opening battle sequence is quite breathtaking in its ineptitude; it’s so poorly shot and edited that you have to wonder how it managed to get past the rigorous quality control of the BBC. Doctor Who has featured gun-battles before, but the one featured in ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ is the sort of thing that is so painful to watch that your fingernails are so firmly dug into the arms of the chair that they are in danger of being pulled off. We have long maintained that if you watch something and you are working out how you would have done the same better yourself, then you know that there is something profoundly wrong with what you are seeing—mental rewriting is probably the best sign that what you are viewing is amiss.

Don Henderson as Gavrok, who has a voice with more gravel that a Doctor Who quarry
The storyline involving Delta protecting the newborn (or should that be new-hatched?) member of her race and seeing it grow alarmingly quickly from a green reptilian-like infant to a slightly green-tinted young woman is very interesting, even if it’s quite clear that this idea was pilfered from the TV show V, which also depicted a character giving birth to an important child that would grow very rapidly.

Dear old Sylv is still cheerfully mixing his metaphors and raising his hat every time a new character enters—these original character traits are not as irritating as we remember them being. The DVD releases of Sylvester McCoy’s stories have seemingly been carefully planned, bringing  out the later stories featuring the ‘Dark Doctor’, and waiting until about halfway through the DVD release schedule to start bringing out the ones that feature McCoy’s initial interpretation of his Doctor. Saying that, there are the first signs here that there was something darker lurking underneath McCoy’s seemingly frothy portrayal of the Doctor, as he gets to be very commanding and irate at certain times in this story.

Bonnie Langford is mildly less irritating here than in other stories she appeared in, this is possibly because of the Earth setting, where her character reacts more easily with people and situations she is familiar with. It has been our opinion that if Mel had only appeared as essentially a ‘one-shot’ companion during the ‘Terror of the Vervoids’ segment of Colin Baker’s ‘Trial of a Timelord’ series, then she would have worked out well and would have left the audience remembering her fondly, but sadly, JNT wanted her to stay on and the rest is history.

Sarah Griffiths as prospective companion Ray is interesting and certainly has enough ‘pluck’ to be an assistant to the Doctor, but when stacked up against Sophie Aldred, a clear winner emerges. Interestingly, both Ray and Ace were tomboyish in their demeanour and dressed in a somewhat unconventional manner, but the similarities ended there.

Ken Dodd(ging the Tax Man)
Ken Dodd, as the Tollman at the Tollport, is thankfully only in the thing for a short while, being shot in the back near the end of the first instalment. It was comedy stunt-casting such as this that was seemingly destroying the show at the time. There were some instances where JNT’s idea paid off and the guest actor really added something special to the story they appeared—the best example was Sale of the Century host and radio personality Nicholas Parsons turning up in ‘The Curse of Fenric’ and turning in a most impressive performance. Sadly, most of the famous faces performed as expected and proved to be a distraction to the drama. You have to wonder if Dodd asked to be paid in cash, as this was around the time when he was Diddled by the tax-man….

Don Henderson as Gavrok snarls, growls and points his gun at anyone and anything in his path, be it comrade or adversary and occasionally delivers a couple of lines that elevate things above the play-acting level this story embodies.

Hugh Lloyd lends a considerable amount of dignity to the story in the role of a thoughtful apiarist, so much so that he seems a little out of place. Lloyd does get to be in the final shot, giving a wink that only an old pro like him can pull off without seeming naff.  

Richard Davies is utterly charming as Mr Burton, owner of the Shangri-La holiday camp, a friendly individual who is drawn into the conflict and proves to be a determined old warhorse. The heavy Welsh accent he speaks with just adds to his charm.

Morgan Deare and veteran actor Stubby Kaye appear as a pair of comedic secret service agents sent to recover the missing satellite. Deare is a competent actor and Kaye is an old pro, but the two of them weren’t capable of making the material work. Their characters are just the broadest of stereotypical ‘Yanks’ and seriously detract from the rest of the story; this is compounded by the fact that the characters pretty much do nothing in terms of the story and seem to be there for padding reasons. Deare would later return to the Doctor Who universe in the Big Finish Paul McGann audio story, ‘Minuet in Hell’.

Good Evans! Doctor Who in Wales? Surely not...?
Keff McCulloch’s music score is maddening in that some of it really compliments the story well, contributing to the period feel of the piece, but there are a number of times when the synthesised music grates quite badly—the re-recording of the theme to ‘Dick Barton: Special Agent’ is one such example; the usage of it during a chase sequence was inspired, but it is let down by the flat version they used.

Delta and the Bannermen is a frustrating Doctor Who yarn, with all of the elements coming together in a way though that is not unlike a car-crash involving three sports cars; the elements looked good before they converged, but the end result is a mangled wreck; however, mangled wrecks can be fascinating an compelling. Possibly the best thing to come out of this story is that it managed to immortalise the Barry Island Bultins resort before it was torn down.

Video


Despite what you may think of the story, you can’t fault the picture quality of ‘Delta and the Bannermen’—it looks a treat, arguably looking spiffier here than it did on its original broadcast. The bright colours of the fifties outfits and the hastily-painted derelict holiday camp are faithfully reproduced.

Audio


Here’s the rub—it has long been reckoned that all of the stories in the McCoy era were able to be presented in remixed 5.1 soundtracks. Sadly, for whatever reason, ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ is not presented in this manner. The audio is fine, but it would have been better served with a new mix.

Extras


Audio Commentary:  For your aural pleasure, Sylvester McCoy, Sarah Griffiths and script editor Andrew Cartmel.  This is a fun listen, as all of the participants are on good form, especially McCoy, who wisecracks his way through the proceedings. It is quite a surprise to hear Griffiths speaking without a Welsh accent—she even apologises to the Welsh for her attempt at their distinctive cadence.

Gavrok's men plant a bomb on the TARDIS - it's the Delta & the Bannermen script!
Episode One – First Edit: This makes for a fascinating extra; for your viewing pleasure is what could be referred to as a ’71 edit, containing the first cut of episode one, which runs for around six minutes longer and is without music, sound effects and visual effects.  It really is most insightful, showing you how something as seemingly straightforward as an episode of a long-running television show can undergo significant structural changes during the editing process.

But First This: Andy Crane introduces this little look behind the filming of ‘Delta and the Bannermen’, featuring interviews with Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Ken Dodd. This is fairly short but very interesting, not least because it’s nice to see Sylv on film, rather than videotape.

Wales Today: This two-minute piece was an item on a regional news show and features interviews with Sylvester McCoy and producer John Nathan-Turner.

Interview Rushes: This sixteen minute item contains the unedited interviews of the cast members who featured in the ‘But First This’ segment. Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Ken Dodd are all quizzed at length. It makes for interesting viewing, as you are able to see what pieces were extracted and effectively used as sound-bites for the short piece. Dodd mugs shamelessly for the camera, Langford is perky, but Sylv comes across best, as he seems genuine, terribly humble and very amusing in his own inimitable way. Great stuff!

Hugh and Us: A nice little seven minute interview with the late Hugh Lloyd, a veteran character actor who speaks about his participation on ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ and about his career in general. It is fascinating to hear him reminisce about his days with Hancock et al and the producers of this featurette should be applauded for allowing this stalwart of British comedy to have his memories preserved for years to come.

Clown Court: A segment from the Noel Edmunds Saturday Roadshow, featuring Sylvester McCoy on trial—to defend himself, Sylv should have gotten himself the same people who helped Edmunds beat the rap over the infamous ‘Late Late Breakfast Show’. It contains some amusing stuff, with McCoy continually goofing, but one can’t help that it would have been better to have included all the material from (what a seriously Who-mad friend of mine informs me is true) the Christmas tape that include a lot more outtakes, including a particularly foul-mouthed Don Henderson fluffing his lines.

Someone tell him Mel leaves soon - that'll cheer him up!
Stripped For Action: This is another instalment in the occasional series that examines the Doctor’s adventures in comic strips. Obviously, the Doctor under scrutiny here is the Seventh Doctor and there are plenty of interviewees on hand to give their opinions on the stories that were produced at the time. This is fascinating stuff—clocking in at twenty-one minutes, an interesting story emerges of the attempts to keep Doctor Who alive during the dark times following the cancellation of the show and of the efforts to have an intertwining story-thread running with the New Adventures novels.

Trails and Continuity: Nice nostalgic stuff here, featuring numerous continuity links and trailers for the story. It’s interesting to hear the continuity announcer refreshing the story just before the next episode—such a thing would never happen these days, as that’s what recaps are for.

Coming Soon: This provides you with a tantalising glimpse of the eagerly awaited release of Patrick Troughton’s swansong, ‘The War Games’. This little look of the ten part epic is appropriately longer than other previews and is the best one they have ever produced—if you’re not salivating by the end of this, then we despair…

Photo Gallery: As usual, there are a large number of images presented here, all set to Keff McCulloch’s variable music score. Some nice snaps here, including several of the gorgeous Sara Griffiths in several ’I really hope Aldred doesn’t get the gig’ poses.

Subtitle Production Notes: Once again, this feature can be relied upon to deliver more facts, figures and info about the making of this story. Top stuff, as always.

Radio Times Listing: Open this baby up on your PC and you’ll be treated to the listings for this Doctor Who story as published in the BBC’s long-running magazine (other TV listings guides are available…).

The only thing that is really missing here is a proper ‘making-of’ documentary, but with everything else that has been included here, it's not that much of an omission.

Many Who fans are willing Delta to squeeze the trigger

Overall


It should be worth pointing out that we used our six year old New-Who mad nephew as a guinea pig, and to our astonishment, he actually sat through the whole thing without a break to the point where he really needed to go to the toilet, but wanted to watch the end. This was his first Sylv story and after it was finished, he declared that McCoy was now his favourite Doctor—not bad going for someone weaned on Tennant...

‘Delta and the Bannermen’ marked quite a low point for Doctor Who. It was a brave attempt to do something a little different , but ultimately it failed due to various reasons. Though you have to applaud their efforts, this story is very hard to take seriously; there are too many irrelevant supporting characters and the music on the soundtrack can be overbearing, but Sylvester McCoy is pretty enjoyable and Bonnie Langford is at her least annoying, the latter probably being the best reason to check this out. If you’re in the right mood, you might enjoy it…


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