All Creatures Great and Small

In fandoms you sometimes hear of people making ‘the great journey’ with an old, usually long-running, TV series. It refers to watching all of its episodes, start to finish. I’ve most commonly heard of people doing it with Doctor Who or Star Trek (both mighty achievements to be sure, especially if we’re talking modern as well as classic episodes), but how many times do you hear of someone starting a great journey with All Creatures Great and Small? Probably not often, I’ll wager.

However, over the past six months, I did just that. I watched all 90 episodes, comprising:

  • Season One (1978) – 13 episodes
  • Season Two (1978) – 14 episodes
  • Season Three (1979-1980) – 14 episodes
  • 1983 Christmas Special
  • 1985 Christmas Special
  • Season Four (1988) – 10 episodes
  • Season Five (1988) – 12 episodes
  • Season Six (1989) – 12 episodes
  • Season Seven (1990) – 13 episodes

Part of this rewatch was pure nostalgia. All Creatures was a TV series repeated quite often on Australia’s ABC Television network through the 1980s and, as a reader of the James Herriot novels which the series was based on, I was easily in the target audience. To me, this was the books leaping off the screen. It was feelgood, (generally) comforting television that a pre-teen and early-teen me took so seriously, I had a mind to becoming a veterinarian for some years. This was until it became clear to me that my academic interests – and thus what I was quite good at – were about as far removed from veterinary science as you can imagine. Unless I intended on diagnosing cats and dogs with my skills at reading Aeschylus, or birthing calves via a discussion of US-Soviet relations after WW2, I wasn’t really on the right track. Bless the science teacher who had this chat with me.

Of course, for a Doctor Who related website, it would be remiss if I didn’t stop here and mention the connections between it and All Creatures. The major ones being, of course, that the 5th Doctor – Peter Davison – plays Tristan Farnon in many of the 90 episodes. There are chunks of the series where he isn’t present (blame Davison’s insane work schedule during the 1980s for that), but his character’s never far away. In addition to this, Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner worked on the series and although he may have met Davison earlier (I seem to recall something along those lines?), it was certainly because of All Creatures that he decided to cast Davison as the 5th Doctor. Throw in some Doctor Who writers and guest appearances from the likes of Patrick Troughton and Nicholas Courtney, and All Creatures can be quite a rewarding watch for Doctor Who fans.

How does the series stand up today? Funnily enough, it’s the scratchy old late 1970s episodes, with pretty terrible sets, that are by far the most enjoyable. Watch the first three seasons and you have the basic All Creatures experience. By the time of the 1983 and 1985 Christmas specials, the production values have gone up considerably, but the stories just don’t feel right. Then there’s four more seasons where the show is clearly trying to get back to its roots and enjoy great production values but the magic, if that’s not too strong a word, seems to have gone from the writing, and even the performances to some degree which, of course, are heavily dependent on the writing.

As time goes by you also start to see old themes repeating themselves. This is largely due to the source material from the Herriot books running out and, it seems, rather than go off on too many flights of fancy, the writers would take something from one of the 1970s episodes and re-work it.

As a result, we have James Herriot once again get forced into playing a local cricket match against a crack opposition (plot twist second time around: Siegfried Farnon gets roped in as well); we have James once again get forced into judging a competition that local aristocrat, Mrs Pumphrey, has entered but cannot be seen to show bias to her (plot twist second time around: it’s Mrs Pumphrey’s driver who wins all the awards), and so on and so forth. If I’m honest, it starts to feel a little lazy.

Some characters even start repeating literally the same storyline every time we see them. In the final few series, Mr Biggins, for example, is all about calling the vets out for an opinion on his livestock but not wanting to pay for it. Rinse and repeat. It’s literally all his character ever does. It’s quite boring.

Even Peter Davison’s character, Tristan, who is always – and quite rightly – remarked on as one of the real joys of the series, starts to feel like a creepy sex pest in the later series. With the actor approaching 40, the writers still give him storylines that hinge on him smiling at women, getting dates, and things not really working out. Cute as a 20-something. A bit scary at middle age.

There’s an excellent book called All Memories Great and Small by Oliver Crocker where he interviewed a range of people related to the show, from the stars to people behind the scenes in various roles. He then took comments from them all and married them up to individual episode listings, so the effect is a sort of DVD commentary, in book form, on what it was like to make the series. It’s a great book and I mention it here not only for that reason, but because it also leaves me with the distinct feeling that many people involved with the series also know it’s best days were in the first three seasons. As such, I don’t feel too bad coming down a bit on the latter material. It’s good, but not great, and even when it’s good it largely feels like it’s just treading water.

Am I glad I took the great journey with All Creatures? Yes, I am. If I was ever to re-watch it again, I’d stick with the first three seasons and leave it there. But because so many years had passed since I’d last seen an episode (perhaps even 30, without any exaggeration), I wanted to be sure I’d at least seen every episode once in my life and so the great journey made sense. But only this once.

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