The latest Classic Era season knockout competition sees a pair of consecutive Tom Baker seasons battle it out. Both are also Graham Williams seasons. Both feature Romana as companion - though we have a different incarnation in each.
Season 16 was the Key to Time season. This had been Producer Graham Williams' first idea on taking on the job - a series of linked stories providing a season long story arc. On taking up the post, planning on Season 15 was already too far advanced, so he had to wait until this one to put his idea into practice. The stories comprise The Ribos Operation, in which the Doctor is given his mission to locate the six segments of the Key to Time, as well as a new companion to help find them. There then follows The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, The Androids of Tara and The Power of Kroll. The arc comes to an end with The Armageddon Factor. Unusually, only one of the stories this year takes place on Earth (and even then half the episodes see the Doctor trapped on a spaceship).
The first half of Stones is quite good, but the spaceship stuff is inferior. Tara is just a rehash of The Prisoner of Zenda - and isn't altered enough from the source material. Kroll will be done far, far better when it comes to Peter Davison's last story.
Despite this, the season is also rather light on alien monsters, preferring humanoid villains. David Fisher writes two consecutive stories, which means we have some strong female characters for a change. The Taran Wood Beast costume is terrible, and a communications problem between director and VFX means that the Kroll puppet isn't properly integrated into the filming, but apart from that there are no serious problems with the visuals. Performances are fairly solid throughout. If there's a criticism, it's that the series is rather a dull one, which is let down by its conclusion. When the success of the entire season depends on the climax to an individual story, that's a serious problem.
Season 17, on the other hand, has some dreadful performances, and some really bad VFX. One director ended up being replaced mid-job, and to top it all the final story of the season was cancelled. Tom Baker was being over-indulged. The new Script Editor was Douglas Adams, who had been involved in that unsatisfying conclusion to the previous season.
The season kicked off with Destiny of the Daleks - a sequel to Genesis of the Daleks, and featuring the return of Davros. It should have been the highlight of the era - but things went awry. The Daleks were in a terrible state of repair, as was Davros' mask, whilst the ones on location were clearly lightweight copies. Terry Nation forgot that his creations weren't robots.
The next story, however, was a bit of a gem. City of Death regularly features in Top Ten polls of the series. Clever, witty, great performances and no naff SFX to let it down. It was written by Adams and Producer Graham Williams, after a David Fisher script fell through. Fisher did contribute the next story - The Creature From The Pit. An OK story on paper, it included a monster almost impossible to realise on screen. The following story was the one which lost its director - Nightmare of Eden. It was also great on paper, but let down by poor performances, bad SFX and a dodgy monster costume. The same could be said about The Horns of Nimon, which prematurely ended the season. Its broadcast close to Christmas led to obvious comparisons with pantomime. What should have followed was Shada. This was to have ended the participation of Adams and Williams, but was cancelled a third of the way through production due to strike action. We can see what it would have looked like as all the location filming had been completed, plus one third of the studio work. We'll include it here, as we allowed The Five Doctors to form part of Season 20.
Which season do I prefer? Well, Season 16 is better produced, has the proper K9, and makes for a more satisfying whole - but I also think it's a bit dull. Season 17 is all over the place, has an inferior K9, but has the greater imagination. It might fail in places, but at least it tried. 17's Romana is more watchable than 16's incarnation. Finally, City of Death helps swing things in favour of 17.