Gerry, Geoffrey and The Underwater Menace (1967)

underwater menace

Doctor Who production office, late 1966.

GERRY: (on phone) No, no, it’s the windjammer jacket, the blacked-up face and the Harpo Marx wig. No, he’s going to look great. Don’t let him out of the building. OK, marvellous. Thanks.

Imperious knock on the door.

GEOFFREY: Pray, good fellow! Grant me access to these… impoverished premises!

GERRY: Call you back.

Hangs up and opens door. There stands an imposing man, opera cape, wild hair, crazy eyes.

GEOFFREY: Thank you, good man! Run and fetch the Script Editor, would you?

GERRY: I’m the Script Editor.

GEOFFREY: Good lord, you’re Mr Davies?

GERRY: It’s Davis, actually.

GEOFFREY: Davies, I am the esteemed writer Geoffrey Orme! No doubt you’ve heard of me. I have written many high quality feature films and TV programs, enjoyed by the masses!

GERRY: Oh, yes, right…

GEOFFREY: And the good news is, I have decided to write for your children’s program, Mr Who!

GERRY: Well, it’s Doctor Who, and…

GEOFFREY: Now, Davies, I submitted a perfectly brilliant Mr Who script to you a good fortnight ago and yet I have heard nothing! Nothing! Me, the writer of What would you do, chums?, Ramsbottom Rides Again and no less than four Old Mother Riley films!

GERRY: Oh right, Mr Orme. What was the name of that script again?

GEOFFREY: Mr Who Under the Sea!

GERRY: Oh yes, hang on, I’ve got my notes on it somewhere.

GEOFFREY: Notes? Of sheer gobsmacked admiration, I trust! Haw haw haw!

GERRY: (fishes the script out of the bin) Here it is.

GEOFFREY: Misfiled, eh? You should sack your incompetent wretch of a secretary.

GERRY: Yes… So, Mr Orme, thank you, but we will not be making your script.

GEOFFREY: No! No! You cannot do this to me! You are turning me down? I, who wrote 6 episodes of Ivanhoe? I demand to know why!

GERRY: Well, it doesn’t make any sense.

GEOFFREY: So you’re just a little man after all, Davies, like all the rest. You disappoint me.

GERRY: I mean, it’s set in the ancient city of Atlantis. And these people live under the sea…

GEOFFREY: But of course! The people there survived due to in air pockets in the mountain’s caves! But they long to lift Atlantis from the ocean. Make it dry land again!

GERRY: They could just take the lift.

GEOFFREY: What?

GERRY: There’s a lift leading to the surface. If they wanted to be on the surface, they could do so whenever they want. Rebuild Atlantis there. And really, why would they stay hidden for thousands of years rather than rejoin humanity? Why not go and ask people on the surface for help to raise Atlantis?

GEOFFREY:  But you see, Professor Zaroff has promised them…

GERRY: Yes, that’s another thing. Zaroff wants to blow up the world, under the guise of raising Atlantis from the sea bed, but there’s no good reason why.

GEOFFREY: Why? You, a script editor of a lowly children’s programme ask me why? The achievement, my dear Davies! The scientist’s dream of supreme power!

GERRY: See, the mad scientist thing is a bit clichéd, Mr Orme and most scientists actually want to advance humanity.

GEOFFREY: You are a fool! An idiot!

GERRY: What about how all the Atlanteans live on plankton?

GEOFFREY: What’s wrong with that?

GERRY: They live in the ocean, Mr Orme! They are literally surrounded by seafood, yet they choose to eat plankton. And although they have the world’s greatest scientist living amongst them, and they have the technology to perform transformative surgery on human beings, they haven’t got any refrigerators.

GEOFFREY: But that’s the genius of it, don’t you see? All the food goes bad in a few hours, and that’s what sparks the revolt which spells Zaroff’s downfall. That’s how Mr Who wins!

GERRY: Look, it’s not Mr Who. The lead character’s name is the Doctor. And sometimes Dr Who when I want to mess with people. In any case, I just don’t think you’ve got the structure right.

GEOFFREY: What do you mean, you little man?

GERRY: You see in our show, Mr… I mean Dr Who wins through intelligence and ingenuity. In your script, the villain just tells the Doctor his plan at the start of Part Two. There’s nothing for him to work out if Zaroff gives the game away as soon as they meet. And the Doctor’s big plan to stop Zaroff destroying Altantis is to… destroy Atlantis. He might as well let Zaroff blow it up.

GEOFFREY: Blast! Blast! Blast!

GERRY: Well, exactly. In any case, I think it’s beyond our budget. It’s got a shark tank, an octopus and a whole underwater ballet with loads of floating fish people. We showed the script to one director and he ran away in panic.

GEOFFREY: Just put flippers on some extras and hang them up via wires! I really think you’re making too much fuss about all this, Davies. A silly little children’s program doesn’t need to make any sense or look convincing!

GEOFFREY: Yes… I think that’s your whole problem right there. Now if you please Mr Orme… (Ushers him out the door)

GEOFFREY: (In the corridor, shouting at closed door) The man is a fool. Have I not sworn to you that Atlantis shall rise again from the sea? Haven’t I? Haven’t I? What are you staring at?

CLEANING LADY: Nothing. Nothing at all.

*****

One week later

GERRY: (on the phone) The t-shirts say what? Tell him it’s just a joke. No, don’t let him phone his agent, I’ll come down straight away. (Hangs up). Okay, thanks for coming in Mr Orme. I wanted to tell you that we will be producing your script for Doctor Who after all.

GEOFFREY:  Well, how delightfully wise of you, young Davies! You must have read the script again and realised what pure, unsullied genius it is!

GERRY: Well, no. Another script fell through and as I’m writing the story before it and the one after, I just don’t have time to write this one as well. Frankly, it’s either your story or we put on reruns of… I don’t know, Ivanhoe.

GEOFFREY: I wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe!

GERRY: I know you wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe. Plus, we’ve found a director who didn’t have a conniption at the thought of making the thing, so we’re on.

GEOFFREY: Capitol! Excelsior!

GERRY: Sure. Look, I don’t have time to do much rewriting on it, so just take on all the notes from our last meeting. Plus the octopus has got to become a fish and add a bit where the Doctor dresses up as a gypsy. Dressing up’s his new thing. And you’ll need to write in a new assistant, a Scots boy called Jamie.

GEOFFREY: No problem there, good fellow. I’ll just give him some of Mr Who’s girlfriend’s lines.

GERRY: Um, sure. And change the title.

GEOFFREY: Yes! To Geoffrey Orme presents the extraordinary tale of Mr Who and the Fish People!

GERRY: Keep working on it. Oh, and one other thing… there’s a terribly hackneyed line in it somewhere. I forget what it is just at the moment, but it’s a real howler. Anyway, we’ll fix it later. I’ve got to get to the studio. (exits)

Geoffrey savours the moment.

GEOFFREY: Nothing in the world can stop me now!

CLEANING LADY: Good for you, ducks.

*****

LINK TO Cold War: Setting, the sea.

NEXT TIME:  We get ensnared in The Web Planet. What galaxy is that in, Doctor?

 

 

 

 

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Questions, more questions and Cold War (2013)

 

coldwar

I have some questions about Cold War.

  1. Do we need a Doctor Who version of The Hunt for Red October?

If the Doctor Who production team has a cinephile amongst it, I’m willing to bet it’s Mark Gatiss. He seems the most willing to mine (so much nicer a term than “rip off”) old movies for his Doctor Who plots, whether it’s When Eagles Dare or Zulu or The Blair Witch Project. Here, it’s 1990 submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, a moody tale of a defecting Russian submarine crew, filled with well known Russian actors like Sean Connery, Sam Neill and Tim Curry. Cold War must be copying it. How else to explain filling a Russian sub with the various regional UK accents of Liam Cunningham, David Warner and Tobias Menzies?  While I’m on this subject…

  1. Why not just make it an American sub?

When Doctor Who does US based stories, American actors and accents get used without hesitation. Here the absence of Russian accents is conspicuous. Make it an American sub and you get around this problem and make it look a lot less like a remake of Red October. Plus you can then cut all that guff about the TARDIS’ translation circuits. And while I’m on that subject

  1. Why do the TARDIS translation circuits still function when the TARDIS has buggered off to Antarctica?

It wouldn’t irritate me so much, except everyone keeps mentioning it! First Zhukov (Cunningham), then Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), then Grishenko (Warner)…

  1. Why would a Russian military sub be collecting samples of frozen wildlife?

Is this how the Russian Navy spends its time? Moonlighting for National Geographic?

  1. Why would anyone think the ice-encased Skaldak is a mammoth?

He’s nowhere near the size of a mammoth and he’s green. You can see him, through the ice, fake Russians! He’s right there!

  1. Would an aging Russian scientist really be obsessed with Ultravox?

OK, so you’ve got an eccentric scientist on board. OK, so he collects ice samples with things in them. OK, David Warner’s allowed to do anything he likes. As a kind of Russian version of UNIT, I can sort of see it, if I squint. But would he really listen to British pop? Would he really sing along to Vienna while on board? Would he really be obsessed enough to ask Clara if they break up in the future? Does any of that really (sorry) hold water?

  1. Do we need a 21st century version of Warriors of the Deep?

So this episode is The Ice Warriors via Dalek. But the story it reminds me of most is Warriors of the Deep (and it’s not often you’ll hear someone say that about a new series story).

That 1984 story, told from the middle of the cold war, imagined that conflict stretching on for 1,000 years. From that perspective, the future’s a dystopia of humans with computer interfaces grafted into their bodies and a constant, pervading atmosphere of paranoia. Cold War, made in 2012 positions it as history. The Doctor (a frantic Matt Smith) has to explain to millennial Clara about how twitchy the whole world was at this time, like it’s something she’ll never experience. Gatiss can hardly be blamed for not predicting world events since writing, but watching in 2018, mid Trump, Putin and Kim Jong un, Cold War feels slightly off target, and Warriors of the Deep closer to the mark.

  1. Are the Ice Warriors fit for purpose in the 21st century?

In Dalek, it becomes rapidly clear that it only takes one of monocular brutes to destroy the world. The Ice Warriors, best known for their lumbering gait and getting woozy in the heat, are not as formidable. They’re the first classic series monster which has had to be completely reimagined for the new series; a hulking great turtle was never going to be able to sneak up on anyone in the cramped conditions of a submarine. So this new breed of Ice Warrior can unexpectedly jump out of his armour and scuttle about the place naked. Which leads to the question…

  1. Just how naked is Skaldak?

The camera modestly keeps its gaze above the chest, so thankfully we are never subjected to the sight of his mighty Martian wang. Presumably, it would have been too Carry On to see a reverse shot of his green arse running down an underwater corridor.

  1. Have we had enough of the Doctor vs old soldier trope?

Skaldak (Spencer Wilding, voiced by Nicholas Briggs) is not any old Ice Warrior, but the biggest, baddest of the lot. He’s a battle-hardened solider and not someone you mess around with. It’s a familiar situation for Matt Smith’s bandy legged Doctor, who often came across solitary remnants of old conflicts, pressing on with hostilities although the main show has moved on, as in A Town Called Mercy and The God Complex. On each occasion, it was important to compare the Doctor to the grizzled, damaged war veteran he was combatting, so, naturally enough that happens here too. To ram home the point, the Doctor even salutes him at the end, to acknowledge his magnanimous decision not to blow everyone up. While I’m on the subject…

  1. Are cold war brinkmanship stories doomed to be anti-climactic?

Interestingly, the Doctor is no match for Skaldak. In fact, he’s always one step behind him. When he eventually lays a claw on the big red button, the Doctor has no bright ideas left and resorts to threats to blow up the boat – buying into the threat of mutually assured destruction all around them (well, it makes a change from simply wheeling out his CV).

This doesn’t work and instead, he has to turn to the moral argument, appealing to the better lizard within that big fibreglass casing. And this is nothing new, and it is the Doctor’s modus operandi. But is it a bit undramatic that he basically wins with the argument, “just leave ‘em, mate, they’re not worth it”? As Doctor Who’s format can’t stretch to Threads, and blow up the world at tea time on BBC 1, aren’t such stories always going to have to end with a whimper?

  1. If the whole thing is struggling to get to a satisfactory conclusion, can you just have a spaceship sweep in and whisk the bad guy away at the last minute?

Sure, you can. Would have improved The Hunt for Red October no end. Though of course it had no Hostile Action Displacement System to add a moment of forced levity in the final minutes. Silly old Doctor, leaving the motor running and accidentally causing a continuity reference. Although when you start mining The Krotons for plot points, perhaps ripping off old Hollywood films doesn’t seem so bad.

13. Is there any excuse for the Cold War play set?

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1964 had Dalekmania. If 2013 had Cold War mania, I must have slept through it. But that  didn’t stop the BBC from releasing the Cold War play set! A flimsy cardboard construction which when complete, vividly recreated the claustrophobic atmosphere above the good ship Nykortny or whatever it was called. For at least as long as it stood up, which was quite a few minutes.

The ultimate swizz was that although the box sported photos of lovely looking Matt Smith and Ice Warrior figures, neither was included in this sad little set. Instead, you got a lone naked Skaldak, not actually seen in full in the episode itself! At least it cleared up any lingering curiosity about Martian genitalia. Like Ken dolls everywhere, poor mighty General Skaldak’s manhood was nowhere to be seen. Well, to be fair, that war was very, very cold.

LINK TO The Two Doctors: Both set in the 1980s.

NEXT TIME: It’s another underwater menace in The Underwater Menace.

Gore, gall and The Two Doctors (1985)

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I idly glanced at the cover of my DVD of The Two Doctors and was surprised to see it had been granted a G rating, for a general audience. That’s a bold call, given this is a story which features, among other things, a stabbing, a dismembered leg, the murder of an old woman, a character eating a rat and another lapping up spilled blood. Perhaps when determining the rating back in 1993 for the VHS release, the overworked assessor simply slept through most of his/her viewing of story. Or maybe they were genuinely content with giving a story which shows an attentive viewer how to poison someone with cyanide the same rating as other G rated titles from 1993 like Bananas in Pyjamas and Babar.

(Mind you, Australia’s classification of Doctor Who home video releases has always been a bit eccentric. Other stories confidently rated G for “go kids, go!” include The Seeds of Doom, The Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. All rated lower than PG (parental guidance recommended) outings like City of Death, Arc of Infinity and The King’s Demons. Only two classic stories scored an M (mature audience) rating, and while we might nod worthily about Attack of the Cybermen, you do have to wonder what it was about The Ambassadors of Death that so twisted the classification bureau’s knickers. It’s not like anyone clubs an old woman or eats a rat in that one.)

When DWM’s Time Team of fresh-faced millennials came to view The Two Doctors Part Three, they were so appalled they couldn’t finish the episode. “I certainly wouldn’t show that to children,” said Beth, who should clearly be applying to Australian Classification for a job. As a father of two little Spandrells, I can report that lots of kids’ entertainment contains surprisingly adult concepts and the average kid can probably safely absorb more of it than you might think, but I take her point. I’d hesitate to let my 6 year old watch this. I’d veto Arc of Infinity too, but for different reasons.

This is a violent story, but no more violent than say The Seeds of Doom or The Deadly Assassin. What differentiates The Two Doctors and Season 22 in general, is its love of gore, which it adds to the punch/shoot ‘em up violence of the Hinchcliffe years. A Hinchcliffe story might blow up an alien monster but only Season 22 waves about the resultant, bloodied limb.

It’s interesting that for the Time Team members, drawn to the show by its carefully crafted 21st century version, the tone and content of The Two Doctors makes it unwatchable. We’re an age away from both 1985 and 1993, when it was considered by broadcasters and censors alike to be suitable for children. But seeing as the Time Team were recently counselled that “you can’t judge the past by the standards of the present,” I think it’s only fair that we consider what was happening in 1985 to make the show take this alarming turn towards blood and guts.

*****

“It’s the eighties,” Matt Smith’s Doctor says in next week’s random story. “Everything’s bigger.” This is certainly true of The Two Doctors, which lies smack in the middle of that garish decade. This is a story bigging it up in order to be a blockbuster. It’s got two Doctors, two companions and two sets of monsters. It’s got an overseas location. It’s the longest story for seven years. It’s huge. It’s also the story which was on air when Doctor Who got cancelled for the first time.

One of the things that gets lost in the retelling of that drastic intervention in the show is how much of a surprise it was to everyone involved. The Two Doctors, brash and brutal as it is, is no example of a show in crisis. If anything, it, like the rest of Season 22, is supremely confident about the changes it’s making to the show. Its move towards a tougher, bloodier aesthetic was made in the assumption that that was what a public watching The A-Team and Miami Vice wanted. And on average, it rated almost exactly as the previous season, so you could argue the production team were giving the public what they wanted. Doctor Who’s budget couldn’t compete with the stunts and action of those US imports, but it could use cut price gore instead. And it could put a busty girl in a halter top just as exploitatively as The Dukes of Hazzard.

It’s tempting to point to The Two Doctors’ early evening timeslot, its generous ratings classification and the more action oriented milieu of the 80s and say that the Time Team’s disgust for this story shows how tastes have become more conservative over time. But it wouldn’t be true; this story’s gross out violence had its fair share of criticism in 1985. Not least of all from Michael Grade who called the show violent and its makers complacent when cancelling the show. So times haven’t changed that much.

No, the point is that The Two Doctors has always polarised views. For some, this story is so over the top and cartoony that its violence appears no more confronting than that of your average Doctor Who story. For others, this is Doctor Who turning bewilderingly and offensively to the schlock horror genre for inspiration. But it was done loudly, confidently, unapologetically and in response to the colourfully tasteless 1980s themselves. It’s the narrative equivalent of the sixth Doctor’s coat of many clashing colours.

*****

Into the colourful but blood-splattered world of Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor lands Patrick Troughton’s second, looking quietly out of place. You’d think that if you were going to bring back Troughton’s shabby, sly aging schoolboy of a Doctor, you’d attempt in some way to harken back to those base under siege stories of old. Rassilon knows, Season 22 doesn’t mind asking its audience to recall stories from the 1960s.

But this feels nothing like a Troughton story and it’s partly because the second Doctor’s not allowed to do anything particularly Doctorly. He starts as an emissary from the Time Lords, is captured and tied up for an episode and then transformed into a permanently hungry Androgrum. He’s this story’s damsel in distress and had Troughton suddenly become unavailable to shoot the story, his role could have easily been reassigned to some generic Time Lord diplomat.

So although it’s called The Two Doctors, we only really get one. And that’s a shame when you think of the fun which could have been had two Doctors. Steven Moffat has said the show doesn’t really work with more than one Doctor (didn’t stop him writing it like that twice though), but surely we needn’t have had The Two Doctors prove that. Couldn’t we have had each Doctor unwittingly working against each other, unaware of each other’s presence, one comically undoing the other’s efforts? Or could they not have been farcically just missing each other all the time? Some mechanism which would have shown the different modus operandi of each Doctor.

But perhaps we should be grateful that the second Doctor is relegated to the status of a more interesting than normal guest star. Had he been fully integrated into Season 22’s gratuitous tone, perhaps he, rather than the boisterous sixth Doctor, may have been the one smothering someone with cyanide. And for an encore, he could have beaten a Sontaran to death with its own severed leg. Surely that would have bumped it up to PG.

LINK TO The Woman Who Fell to Earth: Hmm, not much here, except that the Doctor briefly gets excited about eating in both.

NEXT TIME… Rug up, we’re off to fight a Cold War.

Female heroism, male template and The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018)

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Here’s the thing: we’ve never had a female Doctor before.

I know. Thank you, Captain Obvious. But let me explain.

There was a time when female heroes were rare. Particularly rare on TV and in films. I’m a child of the 70s, so I remember those days well. But things have changed.

These days, it’s not hard to find female heroes in popular culture, and film and TV is helping break down tired old stereotypes. Everything from police procedural dramas to super hero blockbusters have female leads. It’s not groundbreaking or even unusual to see female-led drama. Often, these women take on heroic tasks which were traditionally the sole province of men. So we see women who can fight. Women who can solve mysteries. Women who can fix things. Women who can be funny.

But even with female heroism being commonplace, watching Jodie Whittaker take on the role of the Doctor is a revelation. And it’s not because the show suddenly has a female lead being smart. Or being brave. Or being funny. It’s because we at last have a female lead being all of these things at once.

This story reminded me what a multifaceted character the Doctor is. That’s not so rare, if you’re thinking about blokes in fiction. Male heroes are, for some reason, allowed to be many things at once. The Doctor, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, Starlord… you can find male poly-heroes everywhere. But female heroes tend to be specialists. Geniuses, warriors, adventurers and clowns – take your choice of one.

So we’ve seen plenty of female heroes, but we’ve never had a female Doctor before. That’s why Whittaker’s not just an innovation for Doctor Who but for popular culture as a whole. It’s why her Doctor feels so brilliantly new and necessary.

***

So exactly who is a female Doctor meant to be?

I know! Not so Captain Obvious now, right?

Showrunner Chris Chibnall has taken the sensible decision to underplay the Doctor’s gender change. It’s a move intended, I suspect, to position the essential Doctorness of the character as unchanged, regardless of whether she’s played by a man or a woman. And to show that the series functions in the same way, whether it has a male or female Doctor. There’s no need to continually reference the gender change and do so would patronise everyone involved. (Still, it makes me wonder how Steven Moffat would have handled it. Do you think we would have got through her first season without a boob joke? I can’t imagine it).

But the deliberate effort to present an image of, “business as usual, regardless whether it’s him or her” leaves a couple of questions unanswered. Should the thirteenth Doctor be essentially the same character as her male predecessors, or should she take this opportunity to be a distinctly female Doctor? Should she be a female variant on an established template, or should create a whole new template? And if our first ever female Doctor just behaves like all the men who came before her, then exactly what is new?

To offer some examples: as Season 11 has played out, some have voiced a wish for the Doctor to be more assertive and confrontational. Some have wanted her to stand up to the villains more frequently and more forcefully. Some have wanted moments of righteous anger. Why? Because these are all things previous Doctors have done.

So in one sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to want the thirteenth Doctor to get to do all the things male Doctors have done, particularly if things like taking down a villain or losing your rag at a particularly despicable person are seen as characteristically Doctorly things to do. We want her to do everything the various hes could.

But on the other hand, it seems perverse to want our first female Doctor to behave just like all the men we’ve seen before. Shouldn’t we expect, if not relish, seeing her approach problems differently to her male counterparts? Shouldn’t we see the strength in this?

Perhaps what we’re discovering is that there’s a set of things we expect every Doctor to be able to do – and to get the chance to do. Blow up a Dalek. Talk down a villain. Punch the neutron flow and reverse the polarity of a racist. If we didn’t see a female Doctor do these essentially Doctorish things, she’d feel inauthentic.

But every time she does something different to her predecessors, every time she takes a subtler approach, or lets her companions take the spotlight or plays a moment with unexpected empathy, we seem to be asking why she’s not acting like a male Doctor. And that feels weird to me. If Chibnall had cast a man as the thirteenth Doctor, would we be questioning his every variation from the Doctorly norm? Would we more readily accept each idiosyncrasy as an innovation on a standard template, rather than questioning if he should be more like what’s come before?

We will never know. But I fear this will haunt Whittaker’s time as the Doctor. This tug-of-war between being the same and being different.

***

Funnily enough, concerns about the thirteenth Doctor’s passivity, her lack of confrontational exchanges and so on date from after The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Here she does face up to the big bad. And she does get to do the full gamut of Doctory traits (save a moment of sudden, unexpected anger) and with moments of steely determination, plus welding stuff. And she gets to jump off a crane, in a big moment of physicality. She’s Doctor af.

But she is showing us new elements to our favourite character too. She latches on to the first set of people she sees and adopts them as her “fam”. She takes an almost parental interest in Ryan (Tosin Cole), and a BFF relationship with Yaz (Mandip Gill). We start to see hints of the relentlessly enthusiastic fun-seeker she’ll shortly become. Her sparking new mind is constantly on the edge of distraction. She’s more interested in running mental rings around her opponents than blowing them up. And perhaps more so than any Doctor before her, she wants to connect with the people around her and to engage with humanity.

“We can evolve while still staying true to who we are,” the Doctor says as she finally regains her sense of self.  “We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” If she gets the space to do just that, we really will have an extraordinary Doctor to travel with over the next few seasons.

So sayeth Captain Obvious again.

LINK TO The Lie of the Land: Neither story features the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… How is it you can be such a stupid, stubborn, irrational and thoroughly objectionable old idiot?! It’s dinner for two with The Two Doctors.

 

The highs, the lows and The Lie of the Land (2017)

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Sometimes, we get the best and worst of Doctor Who in one single episode. So come on down The Lie of the Land, which for me shows both those things in short order. It’s a tale of two scenes.

Let’s get the first and worst out of the way. It’s the most infamous scene in the story, and perhaps, in time, will become the most infamous in the whole of the new series. It’s the one where the Doctor (waspish Peter Capaldi) goads his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) into shooting him, for no good reason.

The story goes that in a world subjugated by alien Monks, the Doctor has gone over to their side, issuing regular video sermons like it’s 1984. Bill is convinced he’s faking it and concocts a plan with fellow companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) to rescue the Doctor from the prison ship on which he’s being held.

(It’s easy to see why Bill jumps to that conclusion. Faking being bad is a standard Doctory ploy. And it’s not just that scenario which feels familiar. The whole episode, focussing as it does on what happens when the invaders have won and established a totalitarian regime, feels like a retread of The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, complete with scenes of people being dragged from their family homes and towering statues of the dictators in question.)

Once Bill and Nardole arrive on the ship, they find their way to the Doctor’s office, but it appears they have made a critical miscalculation. The Doctor hasn’t been faking it. He really has given up and capitulated to the Monks. He berates Bill for causing the situation by asking the Monks for his sight back. He threatens to hand her over to the guards. For Bill, who has spent months fighting against the Monks’ mind control and struggling to hold on to what’s real, this is too much. Distraught, she snatches a gun and shoots the Doctor three times in the chest.

Which is when the Doctor fakes a regeneration, reveals the bullets were blanks and reverses his fake out. He was fooling her all the time. He’s not in league with the Monks. Nardole and everyone else in the room was in on it. He played out this macabre charade, because “I had to just check that you weren’t under the influence and testing me.” The end result is Bill humiliated in a room full of people, after her friend psychologically tortured her to the point where she attempted to murder him. For the sake of a cheap trick.

The Doctor faking that he’s gone bad is everywhere from The Invasion of Time to Mindwarp. And the Doctor breaking down his companions’ faith in him is equally common from The Curse of Fenric to The God Complex. But never before has the Doctor coerced one of his friends into murder. Sure, it’s an exercise in “how far can we take this?”, complete with an ersatz regeneration. But it’s not important to the plot, it’s instantly forgotten and it’s unnecessarily cruel. Bill never gets to redress this emotional abuse and humiliation. It’s the most poorly judged moment since the show’s return; the equivalent of the strangling in The Twin Dilemma. May we never see its like again.

But then – the second of these two remarkable scenes.

The Doctor and Bill realise they need some intel to help them beat the Monks so they decide to open the Vault and consult Missy (Michelle Gomez). There isn’t a Doctor Who story around which wouldn’t be enlivened by a scene with Missy and this one is straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, in which serial killer Hannibal Lecter is consulted by young detective Clarice Starling on how to catch another murderer. Like Lecter, Missy issues her advice from within a cell. She taunts and flirts with our heroes. She is, despite being caged, in complete control of the scene. One minute she’s a school mistress, circling her enclosure, correcting the Doctor’s faulty reasoning. The next she’s a vamp, rolling around on the top of a grand piano.

The Doctor and Bill have come asking for Missy’s help and she knows it. She starts with bragging that she could easily escape if she wanted to and then starts the horse trading. She wants a 3D printer and a pony apparently, but that’s a transparent lie. She already has what she wants. That’s the Doctor’s attention.

Better than that, the Doctor is going to be in debt to her and she can use that to her advantage. She’s correctly anticipated the situation and she knows that to defeat the Monks. Bill has to die. “Awk-ward,” Missy sing songs when she breaks this news to Bill, her steely eyes revealing that she knew this was where they were heading all along.

And it ends beautifully, with Missy pointing out that the Doctor doesn’t have a monopoly on virtue, and that the answers he seeks aren’t always easy.

MISSY: I’m sorry your plus one doesn’t get a happy ending, but, like it or not, I just saved this world because I want to change. Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant and sentimental.

And after watching the scene where the Doctor indulged in mental torture of his best friend, who could argue with the vain and arrogant part?

It’s a delicious, elegant scene. But it seems to me there’s so much untapped dramatic potential here. Imagine a better version of that first scene where Missy taunts Bill into defeating the Monks by shooting the Doctor. Or if the Doctor had indeed teamed up with Monk and Bill and Nardole had to release Missy to defeat him. Where might we ended up under these or any number of other scenarios? Not, I hope with an ending where the all powerful alien conquerors are defeated by a memory of Bill’s mum. Not since Azal was confused to death by Jo has a badass been defeated more bewilderingly.

I realise I’ve been a little more judgemental of this story than I am usually am in these posts. But as you might have guessed from my thoughts on Extremis, I find the Monk trilogy unusually frustrating. Clearly trying to do something new, but so clearly mired in what’s been done before. And in The Lie of the Land’s case, being muddled in tone and plot alike.

But then I remember that showrunner Steven Moffat was distracted at this time of script editing this by the death of his mother. Apparently, he was struggling to complete this episode as she passed away. That’s unspeakably sad and it goes some way to explaining the unevenness of this adventure. If there’s ever been an episode where we need to cut the Moff some slack, it’s surely this one.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that The Lie of the Land is one moment clumsy and morally dubious, the next smart and stylish. I keep coming back to The Twin Dilemma. Like that infamous story, it leaves us with the queasy feeling that the companion is not safe in the Doctor’s presence, because at any moment she might find herself on the wrong end of his changeable morality. And that we as viewers aren’t in safe hands, in an episode which swings between such extremes of quality. With the good and the bad in such quick succession, it makes for an uneasy rollercoaster ride of a story.

LINK TO Carnival of Monsters: both feature Cybermen cameos.

NEXT TIME… Right then, troops. No, not troops. Team? Gang? fam? We end the year with the new Doctor in The Woman Who Fell To Earth.

 

Television, disruption and Carnival of Monsters (1973)

carnival

“You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” asked the Doctor, back in 100,000BC. (Not “invented,” but “discovered”. Such an odd choice of verb. Like an exotic island he came across on a map.) He’s trying to explain to his new human companions why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside and he equates television with putting “an enormous building into one of your smaller sitting rooms”.

It’s a strange analogy. It seems to indicate that the writer doesn’t quite have a grasp on how television works – as if it still seems like magic to him. Like the TARDIS, a TV is a box in which impossibly large spaces – whole worlds, in fact – are contained. Walking into the TARDIS, the Doctor is saying, is a bit like if you could walk into your television set.

From the same magic box in the space year of 1973, comes Carnival of Monsters, a joyous, colourful splash of fun in the usually po-faced Pertwee era. It’s the story of when a planet “discovers” television and everything goes to hell in a dimensionally transcendental handbasket.

Television arrives on the dry and dusty planet of Inter Minor in the form of a “miniscope”. The miniscope is like TVs used to be – a bulky, awkward piece of furniture, which has to be manhandled into position (in this case by a group of rubber faced “functionaries”). The import of its heft may be lost on anyone who has grown up in the era of flat screen TVs, but in the olden days, TVs were big boxes which fuelled many a child’s belief that little people lived in the TV and performed all the programs live. Imagine if you could have put your hand inside and interacted with those miniature thespians within. Wouldn’t every young Doctor Who fan would have loved to reach into that box and pluck out the TARDIS, as happens at the end of Episode One?

When televisions first arrived in houses, they were disruptive elements. Evening schedules were rescheduled so families could huddle around them. Other recreational activities were dropped. Visitors without TVs popped in to see what all the fuss was about. Social rules got rewritten. Old habits were challenged. So it’s no surprise then that the miniscope causes a sensation on Inter Minor.

It’s a planet inhabited by grey-faced bureaucrats (literally). We meet a triumvirate of these pompous pen pushers: permanent flustered Pletrac (Peter Halliday), permanently bemused Orum (Terence Lodge) and slippery eel Kalik (Michael Wisher). This fussy trio bitch and whine and generally keep us amused with their stuffy language and their love of procedure. But still, they don’t hesitate to shoot down protesters in the street if they dare to dissent. Inter Minor’s still a police state, even if the representatives of that state are played for laughs.

The scope’s operators – Vorg (Leslie Dwyer) and Shirna (Cheryl Hall) – are the ones who bring the device to Inter Minor, tumbling with it out of the back of a cargo ship. Vorg and Shirna are wildly different to the Inter Minorans. He dresses in a Sixth Doctor-esque ensemble, except turned up to 11, and she dresses in Peri Brown lycra, only more of it and with more baubles. That they are different to the drab officials around them is obvious. But because of their stewardship of the miniscope, I think writer Robert Holmes is equating them with people who make TV programs. They are illusionists, storytellers and scammers. Viewed by those around them as glitzy showbiz types. Slightly untrustworthy. TV types as the new carnies.

The Inter Minorans are suspicious of Vorg and Shirna, but it’s more than just old fashioned xenophobia. They don’t understand the purpose of the miniscope. It arrives to disrupt their world, as surely as if it turned up in their living rooms, and they’re worried. What new, dangerous ideas might it introduce into their tightly wound-up society? Vorg has to reassure them: “Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political,” he has to say. That TV is viewed as a dangerous, potentially subversive element would not have been a concept unheard of in the age of Mary Whitehouse.

When Vorg starts to demonstrate the ‘scope, its similarity to television becomes clear. You can switch channels to watch programs about Ogrons, Drashigs or Cybermen. When the reception goes bad, it’s like “watching a blob in a snowstorm,” and Shirna wonders who’s going to pay good credit bars for that (a familiar complaint for UK viewers who pay a licence fee). Yes, the scope is clearly signalled as a sci-fi peepshow, but Holmes is pointing out that TV is the contemporary equivalent.

Holmes is also showing the authorial choices that TV makes employ to create that peepshow. He uses Vorg to do this. One of the shows you can watch on the scope is the mystery of the SS Bernice, a cargo steamer from the 1920s crossing the Indian ocean. Vorg demonstrates how if we wants to increase the tension in the scene, he need only turn up the “aggrometer” and the inhabitants – in this case the Doctor and young buck Andrews (Ian Marter) can be made to fight. Vorg is now Holmes, sitting in front of his typewriter and turning up of the aggrometer, is a writer amping up the tension in a scene. Or to choose a more modern example, it’s the producers of Big Brother or Love Island, deliberately stirring up their casts of fame seekers to manufacture some drama for their next episode. Poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump, as the Doctor explains to Jo (Katy Manning).

Our heroes work out what’s going on by enduring multiple renditions of the same scene on board the SS Bernice, albeit with small variations each time (again, the drafting and re-drafting process of a script writer comes to life). They helpfully point out a few continuity errors like the calendar and the light outside being wrong. Then they clamber around its innards for a while, before the Doctor stumbles out of the box at the end of Episode Three. Another childhood fantasy enacted: that the people within the TV, might break out and escape.

That’s when it all turns back into a normal Doctor Who story. The Drashigs escape and run amok on Inter Minor, chewing up Kalik the would-be usurper in the process. The Doctor builds a gadget to fix everything. The scope blows a cathode ray tube or something and everyone goes home. All in all, a most diverting evening in around the box.

If we could chart classic Doctor Who’s representation of television, Carnival of Monsters is in the middle of a spectrum, which starts with Hartnell stories like 100,000 BC and The Chase which position it as a magical box of wonders, progresses through to Vengeance on Varos which shows it as a tool for suppressing the masses and ends with Remembrance of the Daleks, which revels in nostalgia for it. It’s a kind of emotional journey for the show, from reverence to suspicion and finally to affection. But of these, Carnival of Monsters is the wittiest, presenting TV as something which changes societies and commenting on how stories are constructed. Nothing serious, nothing political but definitely something fascinating.

LINK TO Twice Upon a TimeBoth feature Cyber-cameos.

NEXT TIME… Monky business in The Lie of the Land.

Landmarks, last words and Twice Upon a Time (2017)

img_5023-1I read all the Target books as a young fanboy, but some were more exciting than others. Some were landmark stories where big events happened. Like the Daleks showing up. Or old Doctors returning. Or companions leaving to get married, cure diseases or become managers of professional wrestlers.

The most exciting of all were the stories where the Doctor changed. No wonder the powers-that-be chose Twice Upon a Time as one of the quartet of stories to restart this mighty range. Regeneration stories were always the ones to snatch off the library shelf.

So when I finally got my grubby little digits on Twice Upon a Time in book form, nostalgia gripped me and I did what I used to do with Target novelisations of regeneration stories. I started at the end.

Well, of course I did! What kind of mad person wouldn’t start at the end? I wanted to read about the new Doctor. That’s the most exciting bit! If you were watching it on TV, you’d have to wade through all the actual episodes to get to that eerie golden glow. But in book form, you could cut out the guff about Ambushes and Captures and Escapes to Danger and go straight to the main event.

The back cover blurbs only fuelled this impatience. They would subtly hint at the endings with expressions like, “the last thrilling adventure of the first DOCTOR WHO”. In the case of Planet of the Spiders, it didn’t bother to even mention the actual story and jumped straight to spruiking the regeneration: “Read the last exciting adventure of DR WHO’s 3rd Incarnation!” It was a time before spoilers, I suppose.

Twice Upon a Time features no such sensational headlines. (More’s the pity. “The last thrilling adventure the first DOCTOR WHO… again! And the twelfth DOCTOR WHO, depending on how you count.”)

But, as I eventually found when I went back and read the whole thing, Paul Cornell does a bang on impression of that old Target style. He’s a prolific Doctor Who author – books, comics, audios and, oh that’s right, TV episodes – but he puts aside his own idiosyncrasies and writes in the way he remembers so well from his childhood. He senses the great responsibility of writing a Target book.

Anyway, let’s get straight to the end. I’ll admit, I was disappointed it didn’t end a la The Tenth Planet with, “Allow me to introduce myself then. I am the new Doctor!” Or the more elegiac ending of Logopolis: “Well, that’s the end of that,” said a voice they had not heard before. “But it’s probably the beginning of something completely different.” He could have gone for the wry approach of The War Games, although it would have needed some pronoun changing: “It’s a pity. She would have brightened the place up no end.”

(Of course, what I really wanted was a note on the frontispiece which said, “THE CHANGING SEX OF DOCTOR WHO: The cover illustration of this book portrays the twelfth DOCTOR WHO (We think. It could be the thirteenth or fourteenth) whose genitalia were transformed after he was mortally hugged by a Cyberman.” Can’t have everything, I guess.)

Famous last words. Target books had many of them. Cornell’s great mentor, Terrance Dicks, for instance, would often end his with variations on a theme of, “The Doctor and his companions were on their way to new adventures.” It’s as familiar a Dicksism as a young/old face, a multi-sided console or that wheezing, groaning sound.

Occasionally, though, he’d just leave you hanging for more, with an effortlessly perfect closing sentence. What about An Unearthly Child, with its “Out there on Skaro, the Daleks were waiting for him.” Or The Keeper of Traken, with its “She seemed to hear the distant echo of mocking laughter.” Or Horror of Fang Rock, designed to cheer everyone up with “No one was left alive to hear them.”

Last words are important. They linger in the mind as vivid after images. Malcolm Hulke liked to end his on wistful remarks. My favourite is The Space War, when the defeated Master simply packed up his paperwork. “Oh well,” he said to himself, “there’s always tomorrow.”  Donald Cotton’s The Gunfighters ended with Doc Holliday drinking himself to death, and the story’s narrator observing, “And I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised.” David Fisher underplayed the end of The Leisure Hive with the droll observation that, “it had after all been one of those days.”

David Whitaker’s The Crusaders was the most poetic: “And the Tardis flashed on its way… searching for a new resting-place on a fresh horizon.” As usual, Robert Holmes was the most elegant of all, ending The Two Doctors with the tantalizing. “Meanwhile, the Doctor and Peri…”

Cornell knows the importance of the punchy final sentence. He made a trademark of ending his Doctor Who novels with “Long ago, in an English [insert season here]. He closes Twice Upon a Time with “Towards her future,” as our heroine plummets to the ground. Sure, it’s no, “The trouble with the Cybermen is one can never be entirely sure.” but it’s thoughtful and rings true. I like to those words will resonate with young readers who raced to the back of the book first for many years to come.

And just think – surely this is not the end, but the beginning of a new range of Doctor Who novelisations, ready to entrance a new generation. There are loads of new famous last words to come. For a young fanboy who’s grown up, that’s unspeakably thrilling.

The Doctor and her readers are on their way to new adventures.

A version of this post appears in the forthcoming charity anthology, You on Target. Find out more about it here.

LINK TO Vincent and the DoctorIn Vincent, we see the first Doctor a couple of times (on the library card and in a print out) and of course in Twice Upon a Time, he actually turns up.

NEXT TIME… We poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump in Carnival of Monsters

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