Earlier this week, the news broke that veteran Doctor Who actress Deborah Watling had passed away following a brief illness.
Watling played Victoria Waterfield in seven serials from 1967 to 1968, including the majority of Season Five which is widely considered one of the most classic seasons of the classic run, the (in)famous Monster Season. Now, whilst the early generations of fandom considered that year's stories to be absolute classics and the cast to be one of the definitive TARDIS teams, neither the season nor Victoria has done well that well when put under the microscope by the fans of later years.
Or, to put it another way, by fans who can go back and review the stories.
You see, even once home video became a thing there was the problem that huge swathes of Watling's appearances no longer existed in the archive. Until 2013 her only complete story was The Tomb of the Cybermen with four out of six episodes of The Ice Warriors and single episodes The Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen, The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear representing the rest of her time with the series. It didn't help that the vast majority of these stories were practically interchangeable “classic base under siege” stories, a formula the series didn't deviate much from in Season Five because of severe budgetary and time management issues. Bases under siege needed only a small number of sets and, to be frank, not so much imagination as to require a lot of editing time.
And then, of course, there's the fact that character just wasn't something that era of the show did. Between the formulaic storytelling and the time constraints any sort of character work was basically abandoned in favour of treating characters purely as plot function.
Watling's plot function was damsel in distress. Not unsurprisingly, this fact aged badly. You can't really watch any of her stories without getting a masterclass in the Male Gaze: she's cute, she's in danger all the time and the camera can't keep away from close-ups of her terrified yet photogenic face.
Here's the thing, though: the scripts were pretty bad, the series was somehow formulaic in spite of having the whole of time and space to play with; and the characters had no character. Yet this is one of the most fondly remembered eras of the show. Received wisdom has it that this is because of the “classic base under siege” format and, naturally, the monsters.
I'm not entirely convinced. Not that the monsters are that bad or even that the formula is all that bad, even if it repetitive as hell.
I think it was the cast. Troughton was a fantastic actor, an absolute genius at wrestling the material he was given into something with depth. Whilst Watling wasn't quite that good what she had in spades was charisma and that was her way of polishing her part in the script until it shone. Victoria might not have had many character traits beyond “prim” and “marginally smarter than Jamie” but she was extremely likable and that's an important quality in an adventure serial lead.
That's what I get from the Season Five TARDIS crew: three fantastically likable actors having the time of their lives, both in and out of character. Watching them together, now more possible than ever with the recovery of The Enemy of the World and the lion's share of The Web of Fear, you can see why this era is so fondly remembered by the fans who were there at the time...
… and it wasn't the monsters.
Rest in peace, Deborah Watling, you were amazing.