Aired 2 – 16 November 1987
Following the general disappointment and rather overt backlash to what Doctor Who had increasingly become under producer John Nathan-Turner, it’s no surprise that the first year of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure featured rather experimental stories that broke from what had become tradition in order for the programme to find both itself and public acceptance once more. Unfortunately, and even more than with ‘Paradise Towers,’ the actual execution of ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ doesn’t manage to live up to the potential that its central concept presents, resulting in a rather sloppy affair littered with intriguing notions.
Indeed, there is something quintessentially British about the fifties pulp stylings and a toll booth traveling in time and space as Nostalgia Tours offers tourists the opportunity to explore a holiday camp in Wales of all places. However, despite the purposeful underlying sense of absurdity, there remains a tremendous disconnect between the tone of the story and what actually occurs, a fact likely due to the troubled scripting process that required several major rewrites. What begins as a rather light-hearted story suddenly features mass murders at the hands of a crazed madman, but there never seems to be any resounding consequences or emotional fallout from these events and the attempts at comic relief never relent. At the end of the story, everything continues normally as the next tour group arrives, creating a strange gulf of unexplored drama that rings untrue. Of course, the central romance between a human and an alien as well as the bizarrely changing appearance of the alien child occur without warranting any sort of mention as well, so grounding the serial in realism- especially in its Welsh setting- hardly seems to be a focal point.
Still, Sylvester McCoy himself is a definite shining point in this troubled story, seemingly finding his Doctor more authoritatively here amidst the tonal confusion. He has been written more as an impish trickster with moments of solemnity up to this point, and that continues to some extent here as well, but he finally has the opportunity to instill his Doctor with a sense of moral outrage and dismay as he witnesses Gavrok’s actions, marking a significant turning point and hinting at a much darker side of this new incarnation. Quite significantly, ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ finds a wonderful use for Mel’s enthusiasm and compassion as she goes to great lengths to help out Delta in this unfamiliar location, possibly the only script of Bonnie Langford’s tenure that showcases what Mel in particular is as a companion.
Despite a clever core concept and some flashes of brilliance from both leads, ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ is anything but a highlight of McCoy’s first season. There are simply too many pacing issues and gaps in both logic and emotional responses to lend the story any sort of lasting credibility. Still, it does continue to mark a continued foray into more experimental tales as Doctor Who tries to reinvent itself on the fly, and it’s not unexpected to see the franchise take a misstep or two as it tries to find firm footing once more.