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Delta and the Bannermen

I'll start this review by listing everything wrong with Delta and the Bannermen.

- The Bannermen sticking their tongues out when Gavrok announces Delta will soon be dead.

Seriously, that is it. Everything else about Delta is utterly gorgeous, and I wouldn't change it for the world. It's a million miles from just about anything else in the series' history, and therein lies much of the appeal. It a way, the story is a retort to the artificial adult direction the show took under Eric Saward. Dull, humourless men with machine guns storm around Wales [in England; what is it about Who and Wales? Whenever the series heads to the principality, it's a fantastic story] while all the real, believable characters pull together against them, having fun and friendships along the way.

And that's the operative word for Delta: fun. You can keep Lytton, Scott and those other Blake's 7 rejects. They sum up the worst of the Saward era, and the treatment of Gavrok and the Bannermen here is the perfect antithesis. They're not defeated by more guns or bombs, but by bees and a PA system. They're defeated by the efforts of real people. The largest mistake of the Saward era was the assumption that realism equalled gritty, and adult equalled violence. Here we have a group of very realistic characters in a very adult storyline.

Love is never something covered that much in Doctor Who, and when it is it tends to slide into melodrama territory, or simply not come across at all. Here, we have one of the most lovely characters in the history of the show - Ray, played by Sara Griffiths. Her reaction to being spurned by Billy is enjoyably realistic, and from this point on it's pretty clear she's not going to get him back - Billy's far too smitten with Delta. Does Ray pout and cry the whole story? No, she shows what a wonderful person she is by promptly doing everything in her power to help Delta. She does what real people do - she picks herself up, dusts herself down and does the right thing. Burton is another wonderful character, ably played by Huw Davies, willing to fend off space bastards with an old regimental sword for a bunch of people he didn't know the day before. Ray and Burton represent human nature at its finest.

On top of it all, Delta and the Bannermen is start-to-finish fun. Utter, unadulterated enjoyment. Motorbike chases, rock 'n' roll, a fun retro atmosphere, love, pain, decent comedy. Not many other stories can check those boxes.

And on top of all of this, there's the performance of Sylvester McCoy. I'm a huge fan of the Seventh Doctor, and in Delta and the Bannermen, everything just clicks. The individual scenes where this is most evident have been discussed by many before - dancing with and comforting Ray; musing over the rationality of love; freeing Mel and Burton from the Bannermen. But the best thing about McCoy in Delta is that there isn't anywhere the character jumps out of track. It's the Seventh Doctor fully formed, or at least as far as the mannerisms and the like go - in some ways this is still more like the pre-Cartmel stories in that the Doctor stumbles into this adventure, rather than purposefully arriving forewarned and forearmed.

The other performances aren't bad, either. While I really don't like her, I've always felt a bit sorry for Bonnie Langford, lumbered with Mel. The character has, well, no character - uniquely since Susan, she doesn't even have a debut story in the traditional sense, meaning that for the viewer who doesn't have her character outline about being a computer whiz from Pease Pottage, she's just a cardboard cut-out. Here she largely reins in her usual stagy performance, and gets some nice moments - raging at Gavrok, and bunking with Delta. Maybe Bonnie would have toned it down a bit more often if she wasn't reduced to overacting simply to stretch the thin material she was usually given in order to simply be noticed? Mel is certainly relatively unobtrusive here, and in an odd way this makes her all the more noticeable.

Don Henderson plays Gavrok the only way such a character could be done - utterly straight. It's a cold, ruthless performance that keeps the Bannermen threatening and opposed to the fun everyone else is having. They don't even make the mistake of making Gavrok look like he enjoys killing even - blowing up the bus, or gunning down the Tollmaster, that grim, granite look stays unmoved.

Belinda Mayne is a bit flat and aloof as Delta herself, but it creates a nice alien feel to the character, while David Kinder does a fair job as Billy. Stubby Kaye and Morgan Deare are both hugely enjoyable as the FBI agents Hawk and Weismuller - they work well together, having lots of fun and thinking to include us as well. Ken Dodd, so often given as the single reason why the show's entire output from 1985 onwards wasn't worthy of being made under the same banner as classics like, erm, The Dæmons and The Android Invasion, is actually alright as the Tollmaster. Sure, it's a publicity ploy, but then so was the horribly miscast Simon Pegg in The Long Game. The difference is Dodd merely lends a more memorable face to a minor character. Appreciation of his performance isn't actually critical to the story's success - the Tollmaster could have been much worse if some plank of wood kicked out of RADA for crimes against acting had been cast, and probably wouldn't have had much effect on the quality of the finished story. Similarly, casting William Gaunt, Christopher Gable, Bernard Horsfall or one of the other actors who has given a tour-de-force supporting performance in the show in such a role wouldn't have affected it that much either. It's a small role [the Tollmaster's in a handful of scenes, and doesn't last past the first episode], so why the fuss?

The Navarinos are great - it's wonderful to see such a human race of aliens. They can travel in space and time. Do they conquer the universe? No, they go on nostalgia trips to fifties Disneyland. They don't invade anywhere, they aren't being invaded, they're just out for a laugh. Even though we only get to know Murray properly, it's crushing to see such a bunch of nice people getting blown up, and makes Gavrok work as a villain to an even greater effect. Goronwy is also a lovely character. Some have suggested he's a Time Lord retired in Wales, but as others have suggested, I really do hope he's just a nice old man, in touch with the wonders of the universe.

Aside from the Navarinos, the Tollmaster and the Bannermen, it's also wonderful that everyone really gets the happy ending they deserve. Delta and Billy leave to repopulate Chimeron together, Hawk and Weismuller find their satellite, Burton is left in his element to host the Skegness Glee Club[awesome] in the knowledge that the reason he's doing it by himself is because his staff are somewhere safe, and Ray gets the Vincent - a much better prize than Billy as if he's stupid enough to pick Delta over her he's not worth the fuss, and also because Ray looks frankly stunning in leathers. And the Doctor and Mel get to leave, knowing they saved some wonderful people and stopped at least one of the universe's evils.

I could talk for a few paragraphs about the costumes [pretty good], the score [part wonderful, part obtrusive], the effects [passable by Who's standards] and the rest of the minutiae we all seem to think are so important to the quality of Doctor Who, but then I think I'd be missing the point of this serial, and possibly the whole programme. If you sit down and weigh tick-boxes for this story against something like Curse of Peladon, the latter would win. Thing is, you sit down and watch Curse of Peladon and you feel like you're enduring something largely for the sake of it. Sit down and watch Delta and the Bannermen, and you'll have fun all the way.

Review by Tom Prankerd

You visited the Whoniverse at 3:38 pm GMT on Sunday 12th February 2006