Robert Colin Holmes (2 April 1926 24 May 1986) was a British screenwriter best known for his stint on Doctor Who: he wrote 18note stories between 1968 and 1986, and served as script editor from 1974-1977.
These aren't just any stories though. Included in his work are some (some might say most) of the all-time classics of the show, including:
- "Spearhead from Space"
- "The Time Warrior"
- "The Ark in Space"
- "Pyramids of Mars"
- "The Deadly Assassin"
- "The Talons of Weng-Chiang"
- "The Caves of Androzani"
Yep, this is the guy who gave us the Autons and the Sontarans... and, as if that weren't enough, wrote the first appearances of the Master, quite a bit of Time Lord mythologynote and some of the best companions. His contribution to Doctor Who cannot be overstated and we're willing to bet at least one of his stories turns up on your top 10 list, probably more. Steven Moffat called him "the man who showed us how to write Doctor Who", while Russell T. Davies lamented how the BBC had no respect for him, and compared the first episode of "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" to Dennis Potter.
Many of his plots have a formula — crippled super-villain tries to regain power — but they vary widely from that initial idea. Holmes was very fond of Those Two Guys: many of his stories are advanced by a double act of supporting characters. His Holmesian Double Act in "The Talons of Weng-Chiang", showman Jago and police pathologist Litefoot, were so popular that a spinoff was briefly considered, and eventually realised in 2010 by Big Finish. He died before he could finish "The Ultimate Foe"; it would require others to finish that one off. It's also a shame that we never got to see "Yellow Fever and How to Cure It", a story planned for the original Season 23, which would have featured the Master teaming up with the Nestene Consciousness in Singapore.
Doctor Who wasn't the only British science fiction institution Holmes wrote for. He was offered the script editor's position on Blake's 7, which he declined, recommending Chris Boucher for the job. He eventually wrote four episodes for that series, including "Orbit", where Avon stalks Vila through a shuttle in order to throw him overboard to save weight.
Holmes joined the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders in 1944, and was actually the youngest commissioned officer of the entire British Army in the Second World War, having lied about his age to join. After the war, he became a London policeman. His contact with court reporters led him to leave the Met and become a reporter himself, and eventually a television writer. A spec script sent to the BBC led to his first scripting job for Doctor Who, Season 6's "The Krotons."
Tropes in his work include:
- Armed with Canon: He spent a lot of time kicking at things from the Pertwee era that he disliked (like the Third Doctor's Invincible Hero problems) and providing explanations for Necessary Weasel tropes in the show that had been previously ignored (Aliens Speaking English, Walking Disaster Area, Hero Ball). He also retconned Time Lord society into a Decadent Court of elderly bureaucrats because he disliked the Mary Sue Topia concept that the previous era used, something that is still fairly controversial. He was also the first writer to confirm that regeneration can happen across gender, note though he envisioned Time Lord society as a One-Gender Race of men unlike later writers.
- Author Tract: Being one of the most openly political writers in the show's history has lead to more than a few cases of this; among other examples, "The Sun Makers" is essentially one big diatribe about how much Holmes hated taxation, and "The Two Doctors" is an extended ode to Holmes' ethically-based reasoning behind his vegetarianism (to the point where he made the Doctor become vegetarian for pretty much the remainder of the classic series).
- Black Comedy: If his sense of humour wasn't clever wordplay, it was this.
- Bloodier and Gorier/Darker and Edgier: Along with producer Philip Hinchcliffe, he was responsible for Doctor Who's "Gothic Horror" period in the mid-Seventies, and really tested the limits of what they could get away with.
- Comic Trio: He often set up his villains like this, then used them to tell a genuinely frightening horror story. Even when he wasn't using the entire trio, the "character who thinks he's a genius, has some legitimate talent, but actually has no idea what he's doing" was one of his favourite archetypes, and formed the backbone of the Master, the Fourth Doctor (a rare heroic example from him), and virtually all other prominent characters he created.
- Distinguished Gentleman's Pipe: He was fond of smoking one.
- Everybody's Dead, Dave: In at least three of his stories, he butchered nearly all his guest cast. In "The Caves of Androzani", the only person to make it off Androzani alive is Peri - he even kills the Fifth Doctor!
- Gothic Horror: His tenure even had a touch of Hammer Horror about it.
- Nightmare Fetishist: His attitude to Doctor Who was essentially, "Let's scare the little buggers".
- Obstructive Bureaucrat: He hated bureaucrats. When he wasn't using them as villains, he was having the Doctor make Take That! zingers at their expense.
- Retcon: Holmes was never afraid to rewrite Doctor Who's history to fit the story he needed to tell, and in doing so created the iconic version of those elements.
- The Doctor gains his second heart because Holmes needed something to get the Brigadier out to the rural Essex hospital the Doctor was in, and reporting a patient with two hearts (a bit he'd used in another script) worked perfectly. It also emphasised the Doctor's alien-ness in the new Earthbound format. The Doctor would pick up more alien physical traits as the plot required them during Holmes' tenure as script editor.
- He gets exactly thirteen lives because Holmes needed the Master to have a reason for returning to Gallifrey and being close to death, and a finite number of regenerations was a good hook. (Usefully for the future, he also introduced the idea that you could be granted more regenerations in the exact same story.)
- He made the Time Lords a Decadent Court of useless, self-involved old men because he needed to dramatically justify why the Doctor ran away. (His thinking ran that if the Time Lords really were omniscient Guardians of Time, then by definition the Doctor running away and getting stuck in was a bad thing.)
- Holmes sowed the seeds of Season 6B when he decided to write "The Two Doctors" without working around how Troughton's Doctor predated concepts like "Time Lords", "Gallifrey" and the evolved conception of regeneration.
- Those Two Guys: And frequently so well-written they became pretty popular. Some of the more popular examples include showman Jago and police pathologist Litefoot (They Fight Crime!!), con artists Garron and Unstoffe, and mercenary Sabalom Glitz and his incompetent assistant Dibber.
- Unwanted Assistance: His characters don't stand around and wait for the Doctor to save them, they work on their own solution to the problem. Usually they end up just making things worse (see "The Krotons" and "Carnival of Monsters" for good examples).
- Writer on Board: Occasionally quite obvious, though rarely detrimental to the plot. "The Two Doctors" made the Doctor a vegetarian like Holmes (and this actually held for twenty years). "The Sun Makers" was a jab at the Revenue office (because they subjected him to a gruelling tax audit because he'd been paid as both an employee and a freelancer for the BBC during his period as script editor). "The Deadly Assassin" is commonly seen as taking some potshots at the ridiculousness of the House Of Lords and the Oxbridge establishment, too.
- Writer Revolt: Holmes was known for taking the piss when given a "nightmare brief" or a shopping list of story elements to include.
- "Carnival Of Monsters" was supposed to be Strictly Formula, so he wrote a serial in which the Doctor and Jo are trapped in featureless corridors being chased by generic monsters for the amusement of a bored audience.
- "The Ribos Operation" was supposed to set up a Good VS Evil meta-plot, which he immediately subverted by writing the Big Good as a quietly intimidating bully and the Doctor befriends a pair of honest con artists instead.
- Holmes ultimately bounced off "The Five Doctors" because he couldn't find a way to include every single thing the producer was demanding in a way that made sense to him as a writer.
- Holmes' first two scripts for Eric Saward are often interpreted as Holmes saying "You want grim violence? I'll give you grim violence!":
- "The Caves Of Androzani" takes Saward's habit of painting the Fifth Doctor as weak and ineffectual by putting him in a brutal world of Evil vs. Evil where all he can do is try and survive, but deliberately showing the Doctor's bravery, determination and self-sacrifice.
- "The Two Doctors" skewers the Sixth Doctor era's brutal violence by bringing it over the top with a nauseating story about cannibalism, and its love of Continuity Porn by giving the viewer a strong dose of What Measure Is a Non-Human?.
- Holmes' final contribution to the Whoniverse mythos, the Valeyard, reads as a scathing critique of the Sixth Doctor, amplifying all of his most antagonistic traits to create an offshoot of the Doctor that's so impenetrably full of himself that he's willing to jeopardize his own timeline if it means potentially saving his own skin (as shown in part one of "The Ultimate Foe", the last script Holmes finished before he died; he never got around to completing the second part).