Road trip, stolen Ship and Marco Polo (1964)

Marco

There’s a school of thought that whilst Inside the Spaceship, the original TARDIS crew erupts into conflict and then everyone makes up, settling into a comfortable team. This is allegedly the point where, after 13 weeks of experimentation, the show finds its standard shape and settles into a pattern. From this point of view, Marco Polo is a standard historical adventure, albeit the first and a bit grander than most. But this neglects how wildly experimental it is and that it too plays a part in helping the show find its groove. The Keys of Marinus feels much more like the typical sort of story Doctor Who will settle into. Marco Polo is, aptly enough, exploratory.

Its original name was A Journey to Cathay and that suits it far better. Because this is a literal journey across 13th century China and a metaphoric journey for our travellers and chief protagonist Marco Polo (Mark Eden). Uniquely, this is a story which takes months to unfold; the televised sections are just the edited highlights, linked by narrative excerpts from Polo’s diary. This makes it Doctor Who’s only road trip story, and such stories are always about charting the change in characters as they progress along their journey.

What did this story’s viewers back in 1964 think of being dragged along this trek for nearly two months with our heroes? They would surely have noticed, even in its weekly episodic formats, a plot which is the slowest of slow burns. Writer John Lucarotti gently doles out incident after incident for seven weeks, fuelled by two major plot strands which sustain the dramatic tension. The first is the struggle for possession of the TARDIS, played out between our heroes and Polo. The second is the treachery of Mongol warlord Tegana (Derryn Nesbitt) which the TARDIS crew are convinced of, but Polo is not.

The first plot strand prompts multiple attempts by the Doctor (a waspish William Hartnell) and his friends to regain the TARDIS by fair means or foul. Each gambit gets frustratingly closer than the last, but each inevitably fails and with each failure, those earliest episodic viewers must have realised they had at least one more week of Chinese antics left before the series got back to bug eyed monsters. The second plot strand generates various attempts by Tegana to disrupt Polo’s caravan. All his ploys – your draining of water gourds, your facilitation of bandit attacks and so on – are shared with the audience before he attempts them, keeping us one step ahead of both Polo and our TARDIS chums.

The incidents within these two plot strands repeat and overlap each other through the seven episodes. In fact, the whole story is a bit like listening to two vinyl records simultaneously, both of them stuck on a groove. Our friends plan an escape, make their attempt, they fail and face the consequences. Tegana hatches a plot, executes it and is foiled. Repeat and repeat until we reach Peking.

And in between these two narrative drivers, there are other road trip hijinks to fit in: getting lost in a sandstorm, a runaway girl, an attempt to steal the Ship. There’s even time for a poetry recital in the middle of it. This story is in no hurry.

Which is good, because it’s also trying to teach you stuff. Not an episode goes by without an attempt to educate as well as entertain, on subjects as diverse as the boiling temperature of water at heights, how condensation works, the speed of messengers on horseback and the explosive potential of bamboo. Never has the show’s original instructive premise been taken so seriously.

This what I mean by the story being experimental: it’s working out what a Doctor Who historical should be. Should there be a problem for our TARDIS crew to solve? Or should they simply be caught up in events, struggling to get back to the Ship? Should each episode be scattered through with educational nuggets? What’s the mix between drama and comedy? It’s notable that they never again tried another 7 episode historical; after Season 1, all historicals are restricted to 4 parts. Marco Polo is R&D for all the other historicals. Even the 21st century’s celebrity historicals take their lead from this one.

There’s also something experimental in its exploration of morals and its ability to tie them to its plot. The recovery of the TARDIS is a case in point. Polo confiscates the TARDIS because he wants to give it to Kublai Khan (Martin Miller, one of many actors in yellowface, unfortunately). The Doctor makes various attempts to steal it back… but the message here is he can’t win through trickery. Even when he’s an odds on favourite to win it back from the Khan in a game of backgammon, he loses. He doesn’t regain the TARDIS until Polo gives it back to him… and that act is the culmination of a corresponding moral journey for Polo.

It takes seven episodes for Polo to realise the truth of things he’s been struggling with since he met the travellers on the roof of the world. Tegana is up to no good, as our heroes have been telling him. And the TARDIS was not his to take in the first place. To bring the story to its end, to complete is own personal journey, he has to recognise and defeat his enemy but also do the right thing and give back the Ship. True, it’s kind of arbitrary that it takes seven episodes to make it happen. It could have taken four or six or ten, but that’s the saga format for you. It can take as long as you want to reach a destination.

But now that I think of it… wouldn’t it have been more fun if Marco Polo had ditched its pretentions to moral and educational instruction? It could be more like a road trip movie – a kind of Doctor Who version of The Hangover? The Doctor, Ian (William Russell) and Polo, could go out on the tear and wake up to a tiger in their caravan. Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Ping Cho (Zienia Merton) could steal a couple of fast horses and rack up some bills on the Khan’s expense account. Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) could wake up married to that handsome Ling Tau (Paul Carson). Now those seven episodes would fly past in a blur! And as the Ship departs our heroes could all wearily agree that what happens in Cathay, stays in Cathay.

LINK TO The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Apprentice: the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS in both.

NEXT TIME… Inquests bore me. But luckily it’s Time and the Rani.

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Davros, Missy and The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar (2015)

magwitch

Have you caught that clip from Gogglebox Australia, where the resident group of couch potatoes are invited to watch The Witch’s Familiar? (“You know who likes these sort of shows?” says one of the watching bogans. “Nerds!”). In bad news for nerds everywhere, it goes down very badly.

There’s general grumpiness about the pace, the special effects, the dialogue… and some particularly filthy humour about what the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is about to do for Davros (Julian Bleach) when he starts limbering up his regenerative wrist. It doesn’t really matter if we give a toss (ahem) about the opinions of these Who-hating boxheads. But what it shows is that a general audience found this particular episode incomprehensible.

I’ve occasionally voiced skepticism about whether too much indulgence in continuity really does alienate a general audience. In fact, I alluded to it last post when talking about Attack of the Cybermen. But that much maligned nostalgia fest is no contest for this other two-part series opener when it comes to over reliance on references to the show’s past. (Sure, I was going to say “fanwank,” but that would have been three references to masturbation in two paragraphs of a normally G rated blog, so let’s not go there.)

At times, it seems this story can’t go 30 seconds without a reference to what happened last year, what happened last regeneration or how there are three versions of Atlantis. It contains a cavalcade of Daleks from every era of the program… which only excites if you’ve actually noticed that there have been different Dalek designs over the years.

And it not just referencing past stories, it’s embedded in them. Its very premise is based on that famous line of dialogue from 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks, which posed a moral dilemma about murdering a child who would, if allowed to live, grow up to be a dictator. After visits to Karn, the Maldovarium and the Shadow Proclamation, eventually the story seems ill at ease with the extent of its own self referencing. Witness the torturous build up to the reveal of the invisible planet as Skaro, and how it forces a rare moment of over acting from Capaldi (“Skaro! You’ve brought me to Skaro!”). You sense the desperation inherent in trying to make an audience realise why they should care about a place they’ve probably never heard of.

So no wonder those Goggleboxers can’t get a grip on this story. (No, that’s not another reference to… quiet up the back, please.) But all these shoutouts to the past are just symptoms of a more fundamental affliction: the show’s deep fascination with itself and some of its long standing characters.

***

This story brings together two super villains, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and Davros, and not just for a 2 for the price of 1, season opening spectacle. It brings them together to ask, can either of these infamous badasses be redeemed?

Redemption will turn out to be the dominant theme of the Capaldi era. The Doctor spent the whole of Series 8 wondering if he was a good man. Series 10 will devote much time to rehabilitating Missy. And in between, there’s this story, where Missy is pressed into service to help the Doctor and thus be uncharacteristically altruistic and Davros appears to be having an end of life epiphany. The question this era is constantly asking is, can people change for the better?

In Davros’s case, the answer is no. It’s a ruse. But to generate any tension out of this “has he/hasn’t he turned good” scenario, there has to be a slow, gradual exploration of his apparent change of heart. Played out over the majority of The Witch’s Familiar as a discussion between Doctor and Davros, it’s a deeply portentous debate. It’s what our impatient Goggleboxers objected to the most, and on rewatching, it’s hard to disagree with them.

Missy’s situation is different. She comes to the Doctor’s aid, thinking he’s about to die. She does this under a claim to being the Doctor’s oldest friend, the Time Lord definition of which is large enough to encompass being long-term enemies as well.

On Doctor Who Extra, writer Steven Moffat claimed that a friendship between the two is more interesting than an ongoing feud. I think he’s only half right. What’s interesting about that scenario, and has been for 40 years, is the story of a friendship lost, which has mutated into hatred. The version presented here, that Time Lord friendship can exist in tandem with deadly rivalry, is just confusing.

Back when she was the Master, of course, Missy did come to the aid of four Doctors and one stuck in wavy video effect. On that occasion, his motivation was clear: the promised reward of a new regeneration cycle. It’s not at all clear what Missy’s getting out of helping the Doctor out now. Nothing, it seems. So in fact, it appears that she is indeed acting altruistically, which is a big character U-turn. It’s only her last minute decision, seemingly on impulse, to try and manipulate the Doctor into shooting a Dalek-encased Clara (Jenna Coleman), which reminds us that she is actually wanting to harm, nor help, our hero.

Again, all this requires a deep commitment to Doctor Who to give even the scantest of figs about.

***

The difference between the redemptive stories of Davros and Missy is that at least Missy’s is fun. I suspect that for an audience which has never heard of Skaro!You’veTakenMeToSkaro! it’s hard to get anything out of Davros’s story, no matter how adorable he looked as an 8 year old.

But Missy can at least be relied upon to crack a few jokes, be deliciously sneaky and mistreat Clara to comic effect. And as long as she’s being the most interesting thing in the story, I’ll bet no one’s in any hurry to find out whether or not she sorts herself out. (I’m sorry. I promise that’s the last one.)

The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar mini quiz

  1. Where did the Doctor get his cup of tea?
  2. Where did the Doctor get his tank?
  3. Where did Missy get the rope she uses to tie up Clara?
  4. Where did Davros get those clips from past Dalek stories? (Did he buy the Davros collection DVD box set?)
  5. Where did Colony Scarf get their Segway?

NEXT TIME… here’s Marco Polo. Come for it!

Confidence, conspicuousness and Attack of the Cybermen (1985)

attackcyb

Part One

Here is a story which has a number of objectives: to be a bold and brilliant season opener, to be a celebration of Doctor Who’s history and to be a kickass Cyberman story. Script editor Eric Saward was so committed to this vision that when BBC rules prevented him from writing the story, he did so anyway and put his girlfriend’s name on it. Extraordinary really, that he had such a burning ambition to tell this story of gangsters, Cybermen and ice maidens that he’d deliberately deceive his employers to allow him to do so. Imagine risking your job and career so you could give the world Attack of the Cybermen.

The first episode gives the best indication of what Saward was seeking to achieve. He offers us space mercenary Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) and his gang of crooks, apparently trying to break into a bank through the sewers. In fact, Lytton’s out to contact a random group of Cybermen, who are hiding out underground. These sections are sharply written and stylishly directed by Matthew Robinson. Although a common criticism of 80s Who is that it moved too far away from the creepy,  tea time suspense that won the show so many fans in its earlier years, these sections are textbook Doctor Who. Interspersed with a subplot of events of the planet Telos, where Cyber-converts Bates (Michael Attwell) and Stratton (Jonathan David) are plotting rebellion, there’s a sense of something interesting and exciting developing, although through a bleak, mostly humourless filter.

Weirdly enough, what really jars in this episode are our heroes, the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He is in his trademark red patchwork coat, she in an eye poppingly tight, hot pink leotard. Whether it be against the stark white of the TARDIS or the sunny location work in some London backstreets, they stand out like dayglo paint splashed across a newspaper.

Nor are they pleasant company to be with (to borrow a Saward-ism). They bicker and moan and swap needless continuity references. He’s a bully and a boor, she’s tremulous and shrill. And because they chase a couple of red herring plot elements for most of the episode, it’s not until they eventually descend into the sewers and tussle with some Cybermen that they finally intersect with the story. Frankly, up until that point, they are a garish distraction from more interesting things.

Saward is on record saying that 45 minute episodes, an innovation in this season of classic Who, afforded greater opportunity for character development. But his approach to them is misjudged. It seems to have been to simply expand a 25 minute structure to 45 minutes; the same sort of scenes happen in the same order, they all just take longer. The result is that the typical first half of each of the episodes in season 22 seem unnecessarily slow. That approach would be unthinkable today, where there’s a constant need to engage and re-engage audiences with new incidents, ere they get switch channels or devices. And now we’ve had ten seasons of 45 episodes of 21st Who, we can see that what the 45 minute format needs is rapid, not leisurely pacing.

Even if he was right, that with longer episodes comes a better opportunity to develop character, that surely demands that the characters are worthy of being developed. But these two fluorescent quarrelers, banging on about the chameleon circuit? Really Eric?

Part Two

And suddenly everything switches around. The Doctor and Peri become more agreeable and everything else goes a bit potty.

The change in the Doctor and Peri’s relationship, and in the likeability of their characters is immediate. It’s tempting to say that this is because they’re separated for most of the episode, but even when they’re together, there’s a concern for each other and a rapport which could have developed into a formidable combination (particularly if Peri could have been given more a  proactive role in the story. It should also be noted that when given a chance to change out of that leotard, she opts for a more practical jumpsuit number, but still in retina burning hot pink. That is some commitment to colour.)

But although we now have a TARDIS team we can feel comfortable watching (albeit with sunglasses on), the rest of the story loses focus. Where Part One concentrated on two or three plotlines, in Part Two they multiply like cybernised rabbits. Suddenly there’s a race to steal a time machine, the plight of the indigenous species (the waggily fingered Cryons, played by skilled performers giving carefully crafted performances completely hidden behind anonymous vac formed masks), a brave rebel waiting for her chance to a room full of conveniently stored explosives, rogue Cybermen bursting out of tombs, a plot to blow everything up, another plot to divert a comet into Earth, a reminder of what happened in some Doctor Who from 1966 and a quick shoutout to the Time Lords.

It’s traditional to bash Attack for its overreliance on continuity details, long forgotten by anyone but the most devoted of fanboys (and blimey, if that twists your Tom Baker knickers, just wait until next week). But although it’s clunkily delivered, I don’t think that’s this episode’s worst sin. The Tenth Planet stuff is, after all, confined to one scene and is quickly moved on from. It’s more that Saward seems to suddenly want to include every possible plot line, as if he’s worried he’ll never get another chance to write anything ever again. This seems to blind him from some plot basics. For instance, the Doctor, although getting plenty of action is kept well away from the story’s centre, never gets a chance to confront his old enemy, the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgariff). Considering Earthshock put the Doctor’s ideological differences to the Cyber Leader (David Banks) front and centre, that’s a conspicuous omission.

The story ends with a sudden escalation of violence including the bloody crushing of Lytton’s hands and the Doctor in a firefight with the Cyberfolk. There’s no attempt to show the Doctor’s ingenuity or problem solving. There’s no attempt to sum up what the central theme of the story has been, which leads to the conclusion that this story’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Except perhaps that the Doctor was wrong to assume that a ruthless mercenary was working for one side of an internecine war and not the other.

Although Attack may not be “about” anything, it’s infused with one palpable characteristic: confidence. It has absolute confidence that it knows its fannish viewers and what they want. It has absolute confidence that they will be so fascinated, that they’ll stick around through a tricky format change, embracing the change of pace. It’s confident in its brash new Doctor, its ability to shock and thrill. When you think that a few short weeks after it went out that confidence would be shattered by the series’ first cancellation, there’s also something grand and tragic about its hubris.

LINK TO Rosa: More Americans. Three stories in a row!

NEXT TIME… Get your own stick! I’m in one of your hot countries to meet The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar.

Divergence, importance and Rosa (2018)

rosa

The thing about writing a weekly blog about a randomly selected Doctor Who story is that it’s sometimes wildly out of sync with what’s new and exciting. And it feels most disconnected from the rest of Planet Who when a new series airs. Everyone’s talking about the latest and greatest and I’m over here saying, “hey, let’s talk about The Happiness Patrol!”

So when I worked out that my 250th post was going to fall during the new series, I thought I’d make a pretence of being up-to-date and de-random the whole shebang just for a moment. Just for one week, I’ll talk about the most recent episode to air. And when I was planning this brief foray into topicality, I hoped that the post would neatly coincide with an episode which was notable. Something interesting and engaging and that felt like an event for the show.

I got lucky. That episode turned out to be Rosa, an episode which offers much to talk about. I know this because so many people have been talking about it.

Online fandom seemed to draw a collective breath after this episode aired – a kind of moment of startled surprise at what they’d just seen – and then the tweeting and blogging and podcasting began in earnest. This is an episode which people want to discuss. And debate. And draw attention to, in a kind of “wow, did you see what Doctor Who just did?” moment. BBC News, Radio Times and New Statesman ran stories on it; more than the usual amount of attention for a mid-series celebrity historical.

Normally, I have months and more often, years to think about a Doctor Who story before I write about it, so the prospect of giving a prompt response to an episode panicked me. So, I’ve been reading and listening to everyone else’s opinions, to think over what other people have said to help synthesise my own thoughts. And over the course of five days, this is the general opinion I’ve noted: “It’s very good. Surprisingly good considering how badly it could have gone. But…”

And that “but” is where opinions start to differ. For some, Rosa is preachy, for others, poignant. The aspects of it that one person loves, someone else hates. Whether it’s that scene by the dustbin or the patriotic trumpets in the score or the distracting eyebrows of the time meddling racist… you’ll find voices in support and criticism of them all. Well, so far, so the lived experience of Doctor Who fans everywhere.

There’s something invigorating about this whirlwind of ideas and competing viewpoints because we all know it won’t last. In years to come, it will all settle down, consensus will be mostly reached and we’ll all come to some sort of rough agreement about the episode. We’ll assign it a mark out of 10. We’ll pigeonhole it. But right now, we’re in a state of uncertain, noisy, opinionated divergence. I wish it was always like this.

***

If there’s a common word to pick out of the maelstrom of comment about Rosa, it’s “important”. That’s a signifier for when Doctor Who drops its usual far-fetched malarkey and tackles a serious issue. Like that other “important” episode Vincent and the Doctor, Rosa takes a real and present problem, refuses to dress it up in allegory and drops it like a truth bomb into the Doctor’s fantasy-filled world. The Doctor’s not that well equipped to deal with racism, or depression or similarly complex societal issues. But occasionally an episode forces her to do so. And because this draws a mainstream audience’s attention to those problems, we say that’s important.

In Rosa’s case, it’s also the first story in 55 years written by a person of colour (definitely important) and a compelling piece of drama. I relished my first viewing of the episode in which the powder keg tension of Alabama in 1955 was at its most palpable. It felt like our TARDIS travellers, particularly Ryan (Tosin Cole), were in genuine danger. This pervading threat of jeopardy, all too rare in Doctor Who, is like lightning in a bottle. A second viewing can’t hope to recapture that feeling, but it at least allows the viewer to appreciate how director Mark Tonderai and DOP Tico Poulakakis created it. (Aided, it’s got to be said, by some of the best art direction the show has ever seen and some brilliant locations which felt authentically deep south).

Rosa herself is played with poise and precision by Vinette Robinson. Where Doctor Who’s other historical celebrities – your Shakespeares, Churchills and so on have been broad brush pastiches – Robinson produces the sort of naturalism you expect on prestigious dramas. She lends this already weighty story much gravitas. Among the storm of opinions about this episode, praise for Robinson is as consistent as praise for the decision to keep Rosa’s story parallel to but separate from the sci-fi hijinks of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) foiling uber racist Krasko (Joshua Bowman). Rosa’s act of civil disobedience is too profound and treasured to be spoilt by turning it into standard Doctor Who, by making the bus driver be an alien in disguise or something. If a Doctor Who episode’s going to be “important”, it also needs to tread carefully.

Still, there are missteps, and despite the episode being genuinely moving, we shouldn’t overlook them. The script telegraphs its intentions too often, such as when Ryan inquires how the temporal displacement gadget works and the Doctor carefully explains how to use it before warning him not to. Surely no one was surprised when he disobeyed her a few scenes later. Repetition snuck in: the Banksy joke, for instance, worked well once and didn’t need to be repeated. And as for how many times our TARDIS quartet explained to each other how they needed to coordinate efforts to get Rosa on the bus on time… well, I’ll just say I felt comprehensively informed.

Those four are proving to be engaging company, even if their exploits seem carefully planned around their individual skill sets. They just about get away with Yaz (Mandip Gill) using her investigative skills to plot Rosa’s movements, and Ryan can be relied upon to fire the space guns and bumble into trouble, but I’m just not sure how many more bus driving related plots they can conjure up for Graham (Bradley Walsh).  Their individual character arcs are all pointing to moments of self-realisation I’m quietly dreading: Yaz reconnecting with her family, Ryan riding a bike to save the universe and Graham driving a spaceship vaguely shaped like a bus to some vital plot point. (And at some stage, surely Ryan’s going to call Graham “Grandad,” and I’ll be hiding behind my sofa for that one).

The Doctor continues to be refreshingly warm, smart and enthusiastic, walking confidently through this tale of the worst of human prejudice. She’s the first Doctor who seems to truly enjoy having a team of people around her, but she has the smarts and courage to talk down a two-bit crook like Krasko on her own, and without raising a sweat.

Where the Doctor truly looks challenged, for the first time this season, is in that climactic scene on the bus, where she must steady her friends to stand by an allow an act of racism to play out, in order to safeguard the future. It’s a brave scene in several ways. First, it’s brave to make a decision to do nothing the moment on which a drama hangs. Secondly, it’s uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and her friends silently condone a moment which goes against everything they stand for. Thirdly, in doing so, the Doctor seems to reject the radical act of demanding immediate change which she is usually the catalyst for. She’s normally the bringer of regime change on many an oppressed alien planet. Here, she falls in favour of slow, incremental change, making people of colour take the long way around to equal rights. It’s a deeply conflicting ending but it’s designed to be, and that’s what makes it work.

This kind of small-l liberal resignation to the practical – an attitude of “well you’ve got to work within the system and change will eventually come” – is an odd note for a Doctor Who story to end on. And I can see where some are coming from when they say that’s part of the story positioning racism too firmly as a historical artefact; that despite Ryan and Yaz’s dumpster conversation, there wasn’t enough recognition of the ongoing stain of racial prejudice in our own society. I think there’s two elements here which redress the balance.

The first and subtlest is that Krasko comes from the far future. He’s a walking indication that racism will prevail long into humanity’s future and will always need confronting. More overt is the choice to close out the episode with Andra Day’s Rise Up. As it’s closely linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s a clear statement that racism is still our problem and the fight goes on; a point I’d much prefer being made by music than by the post-match TARDIS exposition convo.

***

In her first episode of this series, and in the trailers to promote it, our new Doctor proclaimed, “this is going to be fun!” That seems to be a catch cry for this season, and a point of difference from the show’s recent past. Whatever the merits of the Capaldi era, it wasn’t, for the most part, what you’d call “fun”.

Rosa proved to be an early antidote to fun in this season. But that’s OK, because it swapped being fun for being essential viewing, for more than just us die hards. Whatever the diverse opinions about this episode, I think we can confidently say it’s been a while since Doctor Who was that.

LINK TO The Happiness Patrol: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed. Stop your Cryon, it’s Attack of the Cybermen.

Tweaks, twists and The Happiness Patrol (1988)

happiness patrol

Although I try not to pass judgement on Doctor Who stories on this blog, I have to make an exception on this occasion. Because I bloody love The Happiness Patrol.

I love its wit and its brash design which masks so many darker themes. I love how it reveals hidden depths in its cast of comic book characters. I love its masterful musical score and its zingy dialogue. And I love its message, that to stop people expressing their true selves is as wrong as a totalitarian regime or a TARDIS painted pink. It’s glorious. I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Well, maybe there are just a couple of things I’d like to tweak.

I’d probably start with the scenery. Don’t get me wrong, I love the faded theatrical jollity of the sets, which give the place a strange, abandoned funfair feel… but oh, it would be great to have this shot on film, at night, in the backstreets of a real city. The trappings of enforced cheerfulness could remain, but wouldn’t that lift the whole affair?

That would mean we could get rid of those awful motorised buggy things, particularly the one which the Doctor (a crafty performance from Sylvester McCoy) and Ace (the ever vibrant Sophie Aldred) use to escape from the waiting zone in Part One. Noisy, awkward and above all, ludicrously slow. Yes, they can go.

A quick tidy up of the plot wouldn’t hurt either. Ace gets captured and escapes a lot in three episodes – twice in Part One alone. Ideally, you’d use her to drive a subplot with the protesting worker drones, so that then we could see them taking over the sugar factories (the act which truly spells the end for this confected regime) instead of hearing this reported to us in voice-over.

Also, I’d clarify the difference between the late show at the Forum and the Happiness Patrol auditions. These seem to be the same thing and a fate worse than death for whomever goes through it. Ideally, we’d see someone attempt this terrifying ordeal, so we know what it is. As it is, it’s just so much word peril (a phrase I’ve deliberately nicked from Flight Through Entirety, as an excuse to link to their episode on this story, which is particularly brilliant).

There’s also a need to put back all those deleted scenes and extend the truncated ones. Fantastic though it is, this story does suffer from some particularly choppy editing. As a result, things happen very abruptly. Susan Q (Lesley Dunlop) for instance, goes from Ace’s jailor to her confidante and bestie in the blink of an eye. We lose a crucial bit where the Kandy Man (David John Pope) force feeds Earl Sigma (Richard D. Sharp, born to play a musician as he has a musical note in his name) his deadly sweets, and so the result – a blissfully catatonic Earl – appears without explanation during Part Two.

While we’re talking of him… the Kandy Man. Many commentators have suggested they would have preferred him in his original conception as a pasty faced, humanoid clinician type. You’d have got Peter Miles in to play him. Personally, I rather like the walking hodgepodge of lollies he became (particularly the spinning spiral eyes), but perhaps a leaner, more sinister concoction would have the air of a Tim Burton creation, truly the stuff of nightmares. It would help if we could turn down the lights in the Kandy Kitchen – like the gloom of the rest of the planet – and make it altogether more suspenseful.

We can also lose that stagey bit where the Doctor sticks the Kandy Man to the floor using lemonade. While we’re at it, let’s lose that second stagey bit where the Doctor sticks the Kandy Man to the floor using lemonade. It doesn’t make a lick of sense either time. And in other kitcheny matters, we can do with fixing up that bit where the oven unexpectedly shoots out a jet of flame because the Doctor’s puts a hot knife in front of it. And in fact, it would be better if the hot knife didn’t look like a wooden prop with pink gloop on one end.

I think we can make some changes to Fifi too. She’s an ingeniously designed puppet creation, but the shots of her in the pipes bring about some confusingly different suggestions of scale. Plus, even if Fifi is meant to have some piranha-like deadliness about her, she never looks terribly formidable. So let’s give her some transformational abilities. She can be the adored lap dog of Helen A (Sheila Hancock) one minute, but when unleashed into the pipes to track down our heroes, imagine if she morphed into an enormous, slavering hell hound.

While we’re down the pipes, we had better do something about those Pipe People. They’re a nice element to include; the remnants of the indigenous population, stunted and oppressed. But their design needs to be much more appealing. They should be Ewoks, not stunted little gargoyles. And naturally, we’d rerecord their dialogue because they are, frankly, unintelligible.

Nearly done. That brilliant climactic scene… where the Doctor finally makes Helen A confront the folly of trying to eliminate sadness from your life, just before she collapses in grief over the corpse of her pet. With two beautifully measured performances, that haunting music and director Chris Clough’s sweeping crane shot at the end, it’s the perfect way to end the story. So let’s end it there, and not with the charming but pointless wrap-up scene.

And I’d change its title back to The Crooked Smile.

But apart from all those things, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Well, what’s the point of a good Doctor Who story if you can’t change it?

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: whoever wrote the DVD subtitles had their work cut out for them with the Pipe People. At one point, where Ace escapes down the drain pipe with one of them,  they just give up and keep guessing “foot pit” until the sequence ends. What is a foot pit, I wonder?

LINK TO Extremis: both feature Popes!

NEXT TIME… Randomwhoness’s 250th post.

Heresy, hearsay and Extremis (2017)

extremis

It’s just as well that Extremis takes place not in the real world, but in a computer simulation. That helps explain why no-one in that world behaves in any believable way.

Let’s say you’ve just read a document which reveals that the world in which you live is a fabrication: a test run for wicked aliens to rehearse an invasion. (A kind of Android Invasion but where random numbers rather than newly minted coins and misprinted calendars are the tell.) Sure, you might be shocked. You might even be appalled. But would you really top yourself? Amongst all these brave readers, wouldn’t there be someone who would react with curiosity, or defiance, or even wonder? Surely, at the very least, you’d tell someone.

To be fair, after an awful lot of to do in Extremis, someone finally does tell someone else. It’s Piero (Francesco Martino), the unusually handsome priest (that’s his sitcom name), who has found his way into the Haereticum (it contains forbidden texts, so I assume things like Travels without the Tardis, Gary Downie’s Doctor Who Cookbook and Zamper). And when given the chance, he emails this explosive work to CERN. Interesting choice. I mean, if you wanted to convince someone to blow up the world, you could have chosen Donald Trump of Kim Jong un. Instead, he chose a group of scientists – rational seekers of the truth of things, unburdened with superstition. The one group of people you could safely assume would react with sobriety and rationality.

But then the CERN in this ersatz world is a strange place too. It’s staffed by Nicolas (Laurent Maurel) who speaks and a lot of extras, who don’t. On the whole, this odd crew seems to be taking mass suicide pretty well. OK, so there’s a couple of people with hands in heads and staring moodily out of windows. But most of the others are wandering around politely like it’s Inge from accounts birthday and they’re waiting for a Hadron Collider shaped cake to arrive. Companions Bill (Pearl Mackie, again given very little proactive to do) and Nardole (Matt Lucas) look more bemused than unnerved. I’m with them.

The other odd thing going on is the weirdly interventionist actions of the upper echelons of the Catholic Church. The Pope (Joseph Long) drops in on the Doctor to ask him to take on a special mission. “You don’t do this,” notes the Doctor. “The Pope doesn’t zoom round the world in the Popemobile, surprising people,” and he’s right. The Popemobile doesn’t zoom anywhere, it’s designed to amble.

Anyway, it’s very unlikely papal behaviour. But again, this is a computer simulation so in this reality, presumably the Pope does make home visits, is aware of the Doctor and his capabilities and is unafraid to transact with a man who could jump in his time machine and disprove the existence of God at the drop of a tall pointy hat. And presumably the Vatican never thought of getting someone to read the Veritas in padded cell with no way to harm themselves. And they never thought of simply destroying it.  And they never thought of… well, about a dozen different ways you could stop reading people a book. But to be fair, once they realised they couldn’t simply burden the Veritas with a crippling, lifelong guilt, they were probably all out of ideas.

***

Meanwhile, in another part of the story, the Doctor is being led towards his execution. But – fake out! – it’s not his at all. It’s Missy’s (Michelle Gomez) and the Doctor’s on hand to deliver the killing blow. Nardole turns up in a robe to deliver a stern but incomprehensible message from the missus. There are lots of meaningful stares between characters. It’s all a bit gradual, but at least it confirms that it’s Missy stuck in the vault the Doctor ends up guarding. And the scenery’s nice. And the Doctor’s gets his best coat ever.

But it ends on something truly stomach churning. To scare Ranfando the executioner (Ivanno Jeremiah) off, the Doctor once again goes for the gambit of letting his reputation as the supreme defeater of bug eyed monsters do the scaring off for him. I’ve noted before how inherently undramatic this is, but up until this point, this tactic has just been smug and irritating. The version Extremis gives us is particularly nasty and inherently unDoctorly.

This particular wheeling out of the Doctor’s track record is accompanied by the beeping tally of how many people he’s killed. It’s his kill record and it’s enough to terrify a man who has a fetishistic attraction to death. So the Doctor wins this battle, not by cleverness or cunning but by being a notorious murderer. The executioner does a comedy “gets frightened and runs off” bit, but it’s not funny. It’s awful. That the Doctor’s resorted to killing people is no surprise. But he’s always regretted it. Never before has he bragged about it in order to win the day.

All this adds up to a sort of un-Doctor Who story. Sure, the Doctor fights against an alien menace, but he doesn’t actually defeat them. He doesn’t save anyone. The best he does is sends himself an email, and it’s not like it contained any information which actually helped him against the Monks in The Pyramid at the End of the World. And none of it actually happened anyway. So it can’t help but be 45 minutes we’ve spent getting precisely nowhere.

***

There’s one line though that’s got me a bit flummoxed. It’s when Missy is surprised to see the Doctor, even though another Time Lord needs to preside at her execution, and he’s the only one this side of the end of the universe.

MISSY: Thought you’d retired. Domestic bliss on Darillium, that’s the word among the Daleks.

The word among the Daleks?  Whatever could this mean? If the Daleks have started to have gossipy little chats around the water cooler, that’s a real development:

ZEG: Well, I’ve heard he’s shacked up with that Song woman in a restaurant for 24 years.

TARRANT: Ooh, that Rose Tyler is going to blow her little blonde gasket when she finds out!

Turns out it that River has sent Nardole to remind the Doctor that virtue is only virtue in extremis – that it’s easy to the right thing when there’s no pressure, but when the chips are down is when we discover the true importance of doing the right thing. (It’s a surprise he needs to reminded of this after The Day of the Doctor, The End of Time and all the rest but there you go).

Quite why the ultimate expression of this is to save Missy’s life, I’m not sure. I mean, the Doctor was never going to let her die, so it’s hardly an example of virtue in extremis. And more crucially, why would River want him to save Missy’s life? On the face of it, this is a terrible idea, as the Doctor’s efforts to rehabilitate Missy lead directly to the disastrous events of World Enough and Time, which will eventually kill him. Makes you wonder why River has it in for him.

Ah well. More people failing to behave in a believable way.

LINK TO Rose: companions living at home in flats with overbearing mothers/step-mothers.

NEXT TIME: When you smile, I want to see those teeth! We sign up for The Happiness Patrol.

Audience, avatars and Rose (2005)

rose

Doctor Who was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the BBC bigwigs in 1989 and countersigned by the 1996 TV Movie. It was unloved by audiences and TV commissioners alike. It was seen as cheap, hokey nonsense whose time had well and truly past. Doctor Who was as dead as a door-nail.

But then –  2003, when Russell T Davies used its revival as a bargaining chip to come over to the BBC. That he and a few key allies within the BBC like Lorraine Heggesey and Jane Tranter conjured it into existence at a time when it was still seen as a laughable remnant of TV past, was an enormous achievement. But there was a bigger mountain still to climb.

The broadcaster might have ordered 13 episodes for an initial season, but had the ratings not been there – if an audience could not be found and sustained further than the first few episodes – the show would likely be rapidly moved to a late night throwaway slot and its death sentence reapplied. Davies’ career would have suffered a severe setback. And Doctor Who would be the show with two failed reboots, making it TV poison. The stakes were never higher.

So with episode 1 of this new series, Russell T Davies had to achieve one thing only: he had to make a modern audience fall in love with Doctor Who in 45 minutes. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that he pulled this off brilliantly. But he also did something else in that first episode, something even cleverer and more cunning.

He taught a whole new audience how to watch Doctor Who.

****

His first step: reassurance. This episode doesn’t start like the TV Movie, in deep space, with planets and shadowy aliens and so on. It starts with a swan dive from Earth into space, down into an ordinary council flat. In a music clip montage, we meet Rose (Billie Piper) and she goes about the familiar routines of her life: getting ready for work, catching the bus, lunch with her boyfriend, folding up clothes.

The importance of this sequence is that it disarms. It captures viewers who would turn off at the first sight of a laser beam or a spaceship. It sends a powerful signal that this is a series for people who go to work, catch buses and do jobs they don’t particularly love. The lack of dialogue and the pacey cutting all help. Stick with us, this opening sequence says. It’s going to be OK.

Rose is our central character and casting Billie Piper was crucial to both selling the character and the show itself. Piper manages to look like the girl next door while also being charismatic enough to signal that she’s much more than that. Positioning this as her story – making the female sidekick (always a secondary presence in the classic series) the focus of the first episode is a huge signal of intent.

Not only is this a story set in the real world, the world which viewers live in, one of our own is the hero. One of our own is someone important enough to be the centre of this story and to give her name to the story. The old series, even in its later years, never gave us a story called Ace. Or even Mel (can you imagine?). That Rose is fundamentally about Rose is a quiet but fundamental shift.

Next step: the hook. Post our music clip opening, there’s the sequence with the Autons in the basement of the building. It’s textbook Doctor Who: monsters made out of everyday objects, creepy simulacra of human beings, someone trapped within a darkened room and the creeping threat of death at the hand of something bizarre but terrifying. This will be familiar to those who remember the classic show, and in its capacity to intrigue and excite, it crosses televisual generations. Davies shrewdly doesn’t lead with this. In a narrative sleight of hand, he lulls his audience into a sense of comfort with science fiction with the “day in the life of Rose” sequence and then grabs them with some ol’ fashioned thrills. He tops off this sequence, by introducing us to the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston).

Davies keeps the Doctor at arm’s length. He’s an enigma who Rose has to decode in increments. She meets him in a series of events, getting deeper each time. This is what Davies wants his audience to do. He wants them to seek him out, in the same way Rose does. He wants to them to go on the internet to find out about him, just as Rose does. (And didn’t the BBC had several dummy websites from the show’s fictional world set up for them to discover?) By the time we get to the pivotal “turn of the earth” speech, we’re hooked. This drip feed of information avoids the TV Movie’s info dump approach, but it also positions the Doctor as a man you have to spend time with to understand. He’s a man of secrets and you’re going to have to hang around all season to find them all out. But if Rose is willing to, then so are we.

Having made Rose and us fans, Davies warns viewers about capital F, Levine level super fans. Clive (Mark Benton) is one such fan, who Rose meets on the internet. Clive’s way of following the Doctor is not the right way. He lives in a shed. He’s a bit obsessed. A short meeting with him is enough to convince Rose to keep her distance. Clive’s inclusion here is crucial to normalise the process of watching Doctor Who for new audience members. When Rose walks away from Clive, repelled but with her curiosity about the Doctor maintained, she’s showing that you don’t have to be an anorak to watch this show.

And as Rose continues to decipher the Doctor, to explore the TARDIS, and to help him defeat a big tub of angry goo, Davies is stating what viewers can expect from the show. Expect Rose to be an active participant in the story, he’s saying. Expect her to battle aliens. But also expect her to have a family, have a home base and be grounded in the real world.

Then in the very last frame, she runs into the TARDIS, completely buying into future adventures. Again, this is what Davies wants the audience to do. Throughout this whole episode, he’s used Rose as an avatar for the viewer. It’s almost like neural linguistic programming or subliminal messaging – making Rose the stand-in for an audience learning about Doctor Who. It’s what makes Rose such a crafty, disarming and ingenious piece of work. It’s a trick which got – and kept – so many of us watching.

And this weekend, the show will attempt the same trick again. A brand new Doctor, but for the first time, a woman. Reassurance, intrigue, old-fashioned thrills and enough mystery to keep us hooked for a season worth of adventures. My prediction? There’ll be plenty of Rose in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. A trick that good is worth pulling again and again.

LINK TO Kill the MoonTension between the Doctor and his companion’s boyfriend.

NEXT TIME… Are you secretly a badass? We’ll find out in Extremis, baby doll.

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