Dates, fates and Boom Town (2005)


In much the same way that 21st century Doctor Who used to have celebrity historicals, it also used to have “bottle shows”. As Russell T Davies explained in The Shooting Scripts, the bottle show is the cheap episode in a season. One of the side effects of having fewer episodes per season is that the budget seems better spread across each episode. If there’s a bottle show in series 9 and 10, it’s not immediately apparent.

Certainly not in the way that it’s apparent in Boom Town, the eleventh episode of the first series of Doctor Who’s modern run. Watching it again for the first time in yonks, I was struck by just how low-budget it looks. Davies claims that he wanted to show off Cardiff in this episode, in order to thank the city and its people for hosting the show, but sticking close to home is also the cheapest way to shoot something. Not for Boom Town exotic alien spaceships, CGI monsters or the London blitz brought to life. It’s a drama played out in council offices, restaurants and public squares.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like a setting guaranteed to captivate an audience. But Davies spots the opportunity to use those mundane backdrops in a story of interpersonal drama. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, pitch perfect) and Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, AKA Margaret (Annette Badlands, equally pitch perfect) spend the episode sparring verbally, as the Doctor prepares to pack her off for execution by her own kind. And as Davies has said, with two actors of this calibre, that’s all you need.

To save Cardiff from a catastrophic nuclear explosion, the Doctor must return Margaret to her home planet, where she faces fatal retribution. To save herself, Margaret must convince the Doctor to spare her.

In its understated way, Boom Town positions the Doctor in a stark new light; for once, he has a prisoner, who is begging him for her life. And despite the fact that Margaret is sly and treacherous throughout –  it turns out, she has engineered the whole sitation – her appeals are enough to give the Doctor (and the audience) pause for thought. This episode remains the one which most keenly questions the Doctor’s levels of mercy.

The crucial moment in the episode is when Margaret pleads that she’s capable of compassion, arguing that only that afternoon, she refrained from killing a pregnant woman. The Doctor’s response is shrewd but reveals more about him that he intended.

DOCTOR: You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.

MARGARET: Only a killer would know that.

The point Margaret makes is telling because she’s not relying on the mercy of a pure heart. The mercy of a killer is surely harder to secure than that of a simpler hero. Earlier in this same season, we saw the Doctor coldly watch as Cassandra was ripped apart, making no effort to save her, passing judgement on her for her crimes. So we know he’s prepared to draw a distinction between good and bad, and he won’t shy away from capital punishment, as long as he’s given the villain a chance to give up the game. For a person who is such a defender of life, he’s prepared to take other lives in that defence.

That’s an inherent contradiction in the Doctor that long term viewers are familiar with. The question that Boom Town poses is, will the Doctor relent and show Margaret the mercy he didn’t show Cassandra?


While all this is going on, Rose (Billie Piper) is also on an awkward date. She’s summoned Mickey (Noel Clarke) to Cardiff to bring her passport, but it’s a ruse; she just wants to see him again. So they head off into the night to paint the town Welsh red. Not that I’ve ever been to Cardiff, so I shouldn’t really slag it off, but I notice this doesn’t take long and so they end up aimlessly wandering the streets, presumably looking for an open kebab van.

During all the time they spend eluding Cardiff’s nightlife, they recap on the state of their relationship. Initially, it looks like they might sneak away for a dirty overnighter, which would have been an unexpected innovation for the new series (they should watch out, though. We know what happens Doctor Who characters who sneak off for a quick shag.) But then it transpires that Mickey has hooked up with another girl next door and Rose isn’t at all pleased.

There’s a surprising amount of screen time devoted to these scenes; much more than would be given over to similar domestic drama these days. I mean, Amy Pond lost her baby in fewer scenes than this. But we never get to a resolution because soon enough the city is being torn asunder and Rose is racing back to the Doctor’s side. Mickey presumably has to go find a hotel on his own, which will be much less fun.

On the face of it, there’s not much linking the Rose/Mickey story and the Doctor/Margaret story. But if there is, perhaps it’s this: the whiff of sexism. It’s the women who are the instigators of trouble here. Rose and Margaret are the schemers, manipulating the men around them, hoping to have their cakes and eat them too. Neither of them get to do so, of course, but still, the impression is that the women are the ones playing the men.

We never get to find out if the Doctor would spare Margaret’s life. Without warning or explanation, a panel of the TARDIS console flips open and a white light turns her into an egg. She gets to live her life again, a second chance that Rose wants too; another admission that it’s the women of this piece who have sins to atone for.

But more to the point, the Doctor is spared facing the moral dilemma he’s been contemplating all episode. Like the much promised big explosion which never actually happens, so the question of how much mercy the Doctor has never gets answered. The boom fails to go off in Boom Town. Twice.

Still, worst off in this episode is Jack (John Barrowman), who spends most of it in the TARDIS fiddling with wires. If only he’d known his future Torchwood self was outside somewhere in Cardiff, standing precariously on buildings or wiping people’s memories, he could have found and hooked up with himself. Taken poor Mickey’s empty hotel room for a bit. You know he would have. Hopefully, he would have bought himself a drink first. If he could find somewhere open in Cardiff, of course.

LINK TO Smile: In both, the Doctor sits down for a meal.

NEXT TIME: I never will be able to find the words. But I’ll give it a shot anyway with World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls.



Brian, Steven and Smile (2017)


BRIAN MINCHIN: OK, love the plans for Episode One. Great start to our season planning conference, Steven. See, not as hard as all that, is it? Steven? Steven, get away from the window.

STEVEN MOFFAT: Is this locked? Why is it locked? I just need a breath of fresh air. Just a short walk to the shops!

MINCHIN: Now Steven we’ve been through all this. All the exits are locked until we get the season mapped out.

MOFFAT: This is ridiculous! We’ve got plenty of time. I don’t know what everyone’s worried about.

MINCHIN: We start shooting tomorrow.

MOFFAT: Exactly! That leaves all of today and tonight and a bit of the morning! Plus I can keep writing while they’re shooting!

MINCHIN: Look, you know the deal. Give us one more season – just one – and we’ll release you from your contract. That door’s also locked, put the crowbar away.

MOFFAT: Just one more season? Then I’m free?

MINCHIN: And won’t it be nice to have all the scripts ready ahead of time?

MOFFAT: Nice for you, maybe. Look, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch!

MINCHIN: I’m not falling for that, Steven. Now sit down, relax and tell me about Episode Two.

MOFFAT: All right. OK then. So it’s set on this planet, a future human colony, where you have to smile or you get killed.

MINCHIN: Riiiight…

MOFFAT: What’s wrong with that?

MINCHIN: Nothing. It’s great. Keep going.

MOFFAT: No, what’s wrong with it? That’s genuine 100% Moffat genius, that is!

MINCHIN: It’s just… that’s The Happiness Patrol, isn’t it?

MOFFAT: No it’s not! It’s completely different.

MINCHIN: How is it different?

MOFFAT: Well there’s no Happiness Patrol, for a start. No Helen A or Fifi. And certainly no Kandyman!

MINCHIN: I’m certainly glad to hear that! Can you imagine? A novelty robot with some cutesy, gimmicky design quirk. What is the monster, by the way?

MOFFAT: I think I see a trap door over there…

MINCHIN: Steven…

MOFFAT: *mumbles*

MINCHIN: Louder, Steven.

MOFFAT: Emojibots.

MINCHIN: Robots which communicate via emojis?

MOFFAT: But they’re not like the Kandyman, OK? For a start, there are heaps of them and they’re white, silent and featureless.

MINCHIN: So they’re more like the Handbots then?

MOFFAT: No Brian, they’re a completely new idea!

MINCHIN: OK, fine.

MOFFAT: And anyway, they’re not even the monster. The emojibots are just the interface for thousand of microscopic robots which make up the buildings of this colony.

MINCHIN: So they’re like the nanogenes in The Empty Child?

MOFFAT: No, Brian. These ones strip the flesh from people’s bones leaving only their skeletons behind!

MINCHIN: Like the Vashta Nerada.

MOFFAT: Look, do you want 12 episodes this year or will we have to make another series of Class?

MINCHIN: No, no! All fine, let’s keep going. What else happens in it?

MOFFAT: Right, so you have to keep smiling, right? Or the bots kill you. So imagine smiling all the time, even when those around you are dying. The physical strain of having to smile through all that… the tension will be palpable! And look, Capaldi will have to actually smile, that alone will be worth the cost of admission.

MINCHIN: It’s just that…

MOFFAT: Oh, here we go!

MINCHIN: Well, that’s Blink, isn’t it? Not being able to do an involuntary physical action on pain of death. And you did it again in Deep Breath. And kind of in Last Christmastoo, where people couldn’t think about the dream crab things.

MOFFAT: Yeah, but it’s still good!

MINCHIN: Hey, that’s a thought: there are no dream states or people trapped in virtual worlds or anything again?

MOFFAT: No, of course not. Not until Episode Six.

MINCHIN: I hope I remembered to bring the Panadol before I locked that door. Ok, what happens next?

MOFFAT: So the Doctor and Bill meet this young kid…

MINCHIN: Of course they do.

MOFFAT: who leads them to a buried spaceship…

MINCHIN: a LINK to Closing Time

MOFFAT: where cryogenically frozen humans, who have fled from a global catastrophe are all waking up…

MINCHIN: Hello, The Ark in Space

MOFFAT: and fighting breaks out between the humans and their former, and now self-aware servants…

MINCHIN: via The Rebel Flesh…

MOFFAT: before the Doctor works out that it’s all due to…

MINCHIN: Malfunctioning technology?

MOFFAT: Great! Yes! And then the Doctor…

MINCHIN: Reboots the system?

MOFFAT: How did you know?

MINCHIN: Lucky guess. I can see you trying to get that ventilation shaft open, Steven.

MOFFAT: (acidly) Just checking for new, un-cliched ideas.

MINCHIN: Seriously? In a ventilation shaft?

MOFFAT: Anyway, that’s Episode Two.

MINCHIN: What will we call it? The Happiness Robots? The Nanobot Patrol?

MOFFAT: I was thinking just Smile.

MINCHIN: Sure, again like Blink and Deep Breath and Listen and so on. Well, we can make it look a bit exotic, emphasise the differences…

MOFFAT: Look, give me a break Minchin! I’ve been on this show since 2005. I’ve written more Doctor Who than anyone ever. Every year there’s another dozen episodes to fill. So yes, I’m going to, occasionally, repeat myself. It’s gonna happen.

MINCHIN: Fair enough. Let’s get someone else in to write it then. Who do you want?

MOFFAT: I was thinking FCB.

MINCHIN: FC Barcelona?

MOFFAT: No, but ooh… we should shoot it in Spain! But I meant Frank Cottrell Boyce.

MINCHIN: You’re right, I’m sure everyone’s forgiven him by now. OK, so Episode Three?

MOFFAT: Right, so, set at the last great frost fair.

MINCHIN: Oh, good, so like you mentioned in A Good Man Goes to War.

MOFFAT: And beneath the Thames, there’s a giant marine creature being tortured…

MINCHIN: So, like The Beast Below?

MOFFAT: I swear, I will erase you from Doctor Who, Brian!

*awkward pause*

MINCHIN: The Happiness Patrol, eh?

MOFFAT: Count yourself lucky it wasn’t Silver Nemesis.

*door opens*

FLUNKIE: Steven, can you sign off on this? Someone wants to complete Shada again, this time using woollen puppets and dioramas.

MOFFAT: Yes, of course. *bolts through the door*

MINCHIN: *sighs* Get Chibnall on the phone. See if he can start early.

NEXT TIME… and I was having such a nice day. We take a trip down to Boom Town.

Mateship, maleness and Closing Time (2011)

closing time

As a one sentence pitch, “The Lodger, but with Cybermen” is pretty good. Actually, why stop there? Let’s remake Black Orchid with Cybermen. Or The Krotons but with Weeping Angels. Or remake The Time Monster with… nah, let’s never do that.

For a light-hearted, late season cheapie episode, The Lodger looms large over Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who. He often talks of his affection for it, and Closing Time and later The Caretaker are attempts to replicate its breezy comic charm.

Both of those later stories seek to eke more mileage out of the Doctor’s clumsy but endearing attempts to fit into modern life as we know it. All three involve, to lesser or greater extents, the Doctor getting a job. In Closing Time, he’s employed (briefly) by a department store to fool around in the toy department, amusing children. This fits like a glove to Matt Smith’s Doctor, who frequently demonstrates his childlike enthusiasm for having fun, despite the growing chaos around him.

The other element repeated from The Lodger is bumbling everyman Craig (James Corden) and his natural inferiority to the Doctor, in all things. Last time we saw him, Craig was struggling to make it with a girl. This time, he’s struggling with being a new Dad (it’s The Lodger, but with a baby).

Naturally, the Doctor is better at this than him. He speaks baby and can stop a baby crying with a look (“Can you teach me to do that?” Craig says, echoing new parents everywhere). He can project a starscape onto a ceiling, proving that his sonic screwdriver comes with After Effects installed.

So the Doctor is presented as this contradictory mix; hopeless at some mundane everyday tasks, but brilliant at others. Crucially, he’s brilliant at the things Craig is not. For instance, Craig can’t emulate the Doctor’s effortless ability to get people to like him and share information with him. “I bet you excrete some sort of gas that makes people love you,” grumbles Craig. Everything about their relationship is about how one of them is better than the other.

This imbalance is interesting, because the Doctor and Craig’s relationship is about mateship. The Doctor being involved in male friendship is surprisingly rare in Doctor Who. When I talked about The Lodger, I drew the comparison between the eleventh Doctor and Craig combo, and the second Doctor and Jamie. It still holds true, because these are the only instances of the Doctor having a genuine male friendship. Yes, he has had other male companions, but in every case they have been adjuncts to the Doctor’s relationship with a female companion.

(An honourable exception here may be the first Doctor and Steven, but they were not buddies in the way 11/Craig and 2/Jamie were. I suppose we might also consider the third Doctor’s friendship with the Brigadier, but that feels more like a professional relationship than two mates hanging out together for laughs.)

This is kind of how it works in real life. Imbalance is an essential by-product of mateship. Or to put it another way, no two mates are born equal. Blokes, don’t we all have that friend who’s smarter, better looking, altogether more impressive than us? And yet we still like to hang out together. We’re all Craig to someone else’s Doctor.

So that imbalance between Craig and the Doctor rings true. But Craig gets his own back. He might stuff up his attempt to rescue the Doctor from the Cybermen with a barcode scanner and thus end up encased in a Cyber carapace, but he saves the day when his paternal instincts kick in at the sound of his baby’s cries. “He blows up the Cybermen with love,” writer Gareth Roberts said on Doctor Who Confidential. Human relationships being a mystery to the Doctor, he couldn’t have pulled off that trick.

(We’re back to parenthood again, by the way, that particular obsession of Series Six. So many stories this season of fathers and the lengths they’ll go to for their kids. And interestingly in all of them – Captain Avery, Jimmy, Alex and Craig – are all worried about their adequacy as Dads. Craig’s at least is a little less angsty – just the familiar haplessness of a new Dad. I’ve been through it twice, Craig, so here’s my advice: buy a tumble dryer, a pair of ear plugs, a bottle of whisky and try to keep up.)

It’s not just mateship which is on display in Closing Time but also maleness. The Doctor has his eccentricities dialled up a little for this story, emphasising his awkwardness in social situations (he can’t, for instance, work out how to make a social call on someone). But he’s no Time Lord version of Sheldon Cooper. He makes friends easily with everyone in the shop for instance. Craig is your typical bumbling father, but he’s also a bit clueless at basic domestic duties like shopping and cleaning. But they’re both brave, protective and heroic and they both clearly adore each other.

In the pair of them, we see lots of ways to be men, most of them viewed next to the passionless Cybermen and through the lens of madcap comedy. And inevitably, where two men are running about with a baby, heads start to turn. It’s The Lodger, but with poof jokes. The jokes about them being a couple are fun, but in a way they also undermine what is nice about their relationship. They indicate that any close relationship between two men is indistinguishable from a romance between them, which is a bit old fashioned. Hard to imagine that joke working between two female characters.

Still, maybe we’ll find out. We’re only months away from our first female Doctor, which is great, but it does mean it will be some time before we get to see how the Doctor deals with mateship again. Which given how rarely the series explores it, is a shame… but given that the series has never explored a female Doctor, one I’m prepared to live without for a while.

But don’t the Cybermen seem a little out of place here, like they’re treading on another monster’s property? Surely a department store is where we’d expect to find mannequins coming to life? C’mon Chibbers, old mate, let’s remake Closing Time, but with Autons.

FORGOTTEN DEATH: Let’s spare a moment for poor dead Shona (Seroca Davis). Because none of her co-workers do. It’s all jokes and gossip and when’s my next tea break. As heartless as a Cyberman.

LINK TO The Invasion of Time: both have scenes with clothes racks in them!

NEXT TIME… I’m happy, I hope you’re happy too. C’mon, crack a Smile.

Isolation, introspection and The Invasion of Time (1978)

invasion of time

Doctor Who is gonna fix it, Doctor Who will put it right
As he moves across the galaxy at twice the speed of light!
Back into the future, the TARDIS travels time
With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9!

The Ballad of Doctor Who (AKA Doctor Who is gonna fix it). Written by S. Watson, D. Ovenden and R. Young. Performed by Bullamakanka

I write this from a hotel room in Alice Springs. For those of you outside Australia, Alice Springs is smack bang in the centre of the country. It’s about as far from everything as you can get, nothing but desert for hundreds of kilometres. It’s a funny old place –  beautiful in some ways, deeply troubling in others. But despite its contradictions, one thing you can say about it for sure, is that it’s remote.

What, you must be thinking, does this have to do with The Invasion of Time? Well, only that being in Alice Springs has reminded me that watching classic Doctor Who was something done all throughout Australia, including in its most isolated pockets. When I grew up watching Doctor Who in the 70s and 80s, I watched it on ABC TV. It was one of two channels we had when growing up (how ridiculous that must seem to today’s kids) but out here in Alice, there would only have been one, the ABC. Luckily, that’s the one which showed Doctor Who.

The Invasion of Time was a landmark story in ABC TV’s regular repeat runs of Doctor Who. It marked the end of a set of familiar stories repeated often, from Robot to this one. So as a viewer, I noted whenever The Invasion of Time lobbed around. It marked the end of the current run of Doctor Who.  To be replaced by… who cares? Something boring. And the start of the wait until the series was shown again. Probably starting with Robot.

For many other, more casual viewers, The Invasion of Time would be quintessential Doctor Who. It has Tom Baker, being funny and eccentric and putting things right. With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9. It has aliens made of tinfoil and the Doctor shoots the bad guy with a big space gun. For many viewers in Australia of a certain age, this is what Doctor Who is. And any doubt that watching Doctor Who could be a distinctly Australian experience was put to bed by Australian bush band Bullamakanka, singing about the shared experience of watching the show.

Well I was sittin’ in front of the TV set, there were nothin’ much else to do
Then along comes this amazing co’, they called him Doctor Who
It was half-past-six on the ABC, just before the news
No ads to interrupt me, on an interspatial cruise

Half past six on the ABC, before the news, no ads to interrupt me… that describes the viewing experience pretty well. Sittin’ in front of the TV set, nothin’ much else to do. That’s certainly how it felt out in regional NSW where I grew up. Which is nowhere near as remote as Alice, where there was surely even less to do, and at an average temperature of stinking hot, next to no motivation to do it.

I’ve been thinking about the Australian experience of watching Doctor Who for a while now, but Alice has made me think about watching Doctor Who in isolation. I bet there are tales like this from all over the world – fans who found Doctor Who while living in remote corners of Asia, Europe and America, for whom the show was a regular dive into fantastic adventure. I bet there are people from Alice Springs who became fans. And I bet there are people in cities who found Doctor Who to be a respite from isolation of other kinds: bullying, loneliness or family dislocation.

It’s an experience now lost, because people who love Doctor Who today – the old series, the new series or both – are linked by the internet. Want to talk/argue/rant about the latest episode? You’ll find thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter and Gallifrey Base who want to join you. You could do it from Alice Springs or from any other far-flung corner of the earth with wifi. You can do it instantly and easily. It was not always like this. For many, watching in isolation was the norm.

It’s not that Doctor Who is special in this regard. All television – all media really – has the power to relieve isolation and to forge connections with people. But for me, I am often bemused by how different the modern experience of watching Doctor Who is to how I watched it growing up.

For a start, nearly all of the show is available at the flick of a cursor. That alone is mindblowing enough. Then there’s that it’s a mainstream phenomenon; not an odd, niche filler of a program, beloved of dorks and loners, but a palpable TV hit. All this plus the instant global community of Whoheads one can join with only a login, a password and a few thousand opinions.

Watched from this perspective, The Invasion of Time is just another story among many. One where all six episodes can be devoured at once, your enjoyment of it supplemented by special features, partwork magazines and online reviews. But watched from Alice Springs or a rural town in Canada or a village in New Zealand or wherever it is, I think it was something else altogether.

It was a weeknightly treat, an interspatial cruise. And something of a special event, too. The Doctor’s transformation into to roaring, bellicose tyrant was unsettling. The return of the Sontarans was a rare rematch with an old enemy. A tour through the labyrinthine TARDIS interior, which for some reason never looked, through a child’s eyes, so much like a shabby old hospital. The mythos of Gallifrey explored. The Vardans… well, they always looked rubbish, but you can’t have everything.

It was a lifeline, this show, to people watching all over the world. In a way which it isn’t as much anymore – or at least not in the same way. Which is good, right? We wouldn’t trade away the show’s newfound popularity and the technology that links us to fans all over the world.

But watching the show now is a completely different experience for those who used to watch in isolation. Sitting in front of the TV set, with nothing much else to do.

LINK TO The Unicorn and the Wasp: because Christopher Benjamin is in Unicorn etc, both feature cast members of The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

NEXT TIME: It’s always been you, Craig. Please finalise your purchases and head to the checkouts, it’s Closing Time.

Slapstick, semiotics and The Unicorn and the Wasp (2008)


In the middle of The Unicorn and the Wasp, there’s a standout scene where the Doctor (dishy David Tennant) is poisoned after drinking a spiked lemonade. Cue an outrageous slapstick scene where he staggers to the kitchen to ingest a miscellany of random ingredients to order to “stimulate the inhibited enzymes into reversal” (hmmm, sounds sciencey). First ginger beer, then walnuts, anchovies… all accompanied by a frantic game of charades with companion Donna (Flapper, not slapper, Catherine Tate). The punchline to this elaborate joke of a scene is the delivery of a smooch from Donna to shock the Doctor’s system into expelling the noxious substance from his body in the form of a foul gas. From his mouth.

In the middle of this sly and witty murder mystery, here is a moment of pure slapstick. The elaborate physicality, the overplayed reactions, the knocking of over of all sorts… in fact, this could be Doctor Who’s ultimate slapstick moment. (Sorry, that sounds like one of those cheap clip shows which periodically materialize to eat away your time. “Doctor Who’s top 5 ultimate slapstick moments!” an excited voice over would announce, over a tinny version of the theme music and miscellany of publicity photos of past Doctors, flying at the screen).

It doesn’t get mentioned much, but slapstick has a proud history in Doctor Who, despite 80s producer John Nathan-Turner’s much stated opinion that comedy in the series was about wit, never slapstick. He was true to word, at least for the first few years of his producership. Later on, he presided over Bannermen being pelted by jars of honey, milkshakes being poured over café goers heads and the Kandyman being immobilised with soft drink… so he must have got over that particular bias.

JN-T used to talk disdainfully about slapstick in order to differentiate his era from the show as produced by Graham Williams, which fan lore held that was altogether too silly. But slapstick had long been part of Doctor Who’s approach: The Romans had comedy fisticuffs, The Seeds of Death a dash through a hall of mirrors and the Doctor smothered in a deluge of foam. Even the po-faced Pertwee years found a few minutes to run over a tramp with a hovercraft.

It was Russell T Davies, though, who truly reveled in slapstick moments in Doctor Who, from the Doctor and Rose’s madcap dash from the Hoix in Love & Monsters, to the Doctor’s expulsion of radiation into his shoe in Smith and Jones. Davies was never afraid of making the show look silly, in the way which seemed to terrify Nathan-Turner (at least until he dropped green gunge over Balazar’s face in The Mysterious Planet). He knew that slapstick was a delightfully sweet treat within an otherwise dramatic episode.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is something different, though. It is, as Davies acknowledged in The Writer’s Tale, his first attempt at an all-out Doctor Who comedy and slapstick is only one of the tactics used, in a kind of mixed lolly bag of comic approaches. (Though for a comedy, it has some grim undertones. It does, after all, feature an alcoholic mother who loses both her sons on the same day. Fun times!).

For a start, there’s pastiche. This is not just a Doctor Who version of an Agatha Christie story. It a Doctor Who version of the television adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. You’ll know them as handsome Sunday night viewing: large casts, beautiful costumes, stunning locations and faithful recreations of times gone by. The story’s structure lifts familiar scenes from these adaptations – the dinner disrupted by murder, the gathering of suspects together for the big reveal. Even the filmic trappings of murder mysteries – flashbacks, spinning newspapers et al – are employed. At one stage, Donna’s eating popcorn like she’s watching the whole thing on TV. We know how she feels.

Then there are in-jokes. The constant quoting of Christie book titles. Donna’s pre-knowledge of Christie’s work. The deliberate evocations of, of all things, Cluedo. And the moment where Donna questions why Christie is experiencing events similar to her own plots. It’s a pleasant surprise when it turns out the butler didn’t do it. It’s so self-knowing it hurts, perhaps the most self-knowing the show has been since the infamous moment in Dragonfire (itself no stranger to slapstick), when a character quoted a Doctor Who academic book about the “semiotic thickness of a performed text.” Which in turn only added to Doctor Who’s semiotic thickness.

On top of all this, it’s just funny. Barely a scene goes by without a joke, verbal or visual. You can choose your own favourite, but mine’s how Davenport (Daniel Hill) sheepishly pokes his head out of Roger’s (Adam Rayner) bedroom door during the corridor scene. But that’s closely followed in my affections by:

DONNA: It’s a giant wasp.

DOCTOR: What do you mean, a giant wasp?

DONNA: I mean, a WASP that’s GIANT!

What I’m getting around to saying is that Doctor Who has often used comedic techniques in the past, just never before all at once. And thinking about this episode and how it mixes genres and comic forms made me ask: when does it stop being homage and start being spoof?

Doctor Who skirts this line occasionally. Other examples include Delta and the Bannermen, City of Death, The Gunfighters and The Feast of Steven. But I think spoofs (spooves?) prioritise the gags over telling a consistent, logical story. We’re yet to have the Doctor Who equivalent of Flying High for example (no, Time-Flight doesn’t count) because Doctor Who is never just a string of jokes. And The Unicorn and the Wasp is certainly more than a string of jokes; the weaving in of Christie’s story of lost love and self doubt gives the story a contrasting element of pathos.

But it’s an unusual experience watching this constantly self-referential story, so eager to invite us all to be in on its extended joke. Christie’s personal crisis aside, there’s barely a moment which isn’t winking conspiratorially at the viewer. It’s Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel, while saying to its audience, “Look! This is Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel! With a big slapstick routine and a WASP that’s GIANT!”

The semiotics of a performed text has never been so thick.

LINK TO The Angels Take Manhattan: Talking of genre… as this story takes up murder mystery, The Angels Take Manhattan is Doctor Who doing film noir.

NEXT TIME: Talking of self-knowing references… Even the sonic screwdriver won’t get us out of this one. It’s time for The Invasion of Time.




Afterwards, afterwords and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012)

Doctor Who - Series 7

Hello, old friend. And here we are, you and me, on the last page. Well, not so much you. Because I’m the one who’s been abandoned in New York 1938. I’m on the last page, you’re stlll… well, who knows how many pages into your book. Probably somewhere in the middle.

Talking of books, how did you not realise that book you were suddenly so into was by River? It was written by someone called Melody, and if that wasn’t a big enough tip off, it had a picture of River on the cover. I mean, come on.

By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone. But we’re not worried, because you can just come back and get us. I know you said all that stuff about not being able to change history, but that’s got to be a load of tosh, because you do that all the time, right? It’s all you ever talk about, with your “time can be rewritten” guff.

There is that problem about the TARDIS being unable to land in New York in 1938. Fair enough, so let’s do this. We’ll wait a year, then you can come and get us. Or we’ll go to Toronto, and you can pick us up from there. Or travel back to New York in 1937, park the TARDIS and come wait it out with us for a couple of years. Or travel back in time and mail us a vortex manipulator (because Rory tells me it’s like a motorbike through traffic). Or actually, just ask River to come back and get us. Anyway, point is, there are about a hundred ways to get us out of here, so just do it OK?

Sometimes I do worry about you, though. I think once we’re gone, you won’t be coming back here for a while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Because somehow, solitude has come to mean that you start to go bad and you get grumpy. It used to mean you just mucked around for a bit by yourself, but now it’s the end of the freakin’ cosmos.

Don’t be alone, Doctor. Maybe what you should do is go and find yourself a new companion. Make sure she’s a pretty girl (what am I saying? You’re the last person I need to remind of that.) Find one who embodies some enigma you need to solve. Find one who is feisty and flirtatious and keeps changing careers… oh hang on, that’s me. Just come back and get me. That’s the simplest thing to do.

And do one more thing for me. There’s a little girl waiting in a garden. She’s going to wait a long while, so she’s going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. But maybe on second thoughts don’t, because that will completely screw up my timeline, won’t it? Because if you go and talk to her, while she’s waiting in that garden, I’ll never become the girl who waited. And besides that, it’s just a bit insensitive. Because she’s actually waiting for you to come and take her away, so if you just come to chat with her for a bit, that will be deeply disappointing to her. Well, whatever. You can sort all that bit out. Time can be rewritten, etc.

Tell her a story. Tell her that if she’s patient, the days are coming that she’ll never forget. Tell her she’ll go to sea and fight pirates. Actually, don’t tell her that one. It was the fake gooey me who did that. And anyway, it’s rubbish.

She’ll fall in love with a man who’ll wait two thousand years to keep her safe. Though actually, he doesn’t really, does he? Because time gets rewritten and it never happens. Hint hint. Hurry up.

Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest whale who ever lived and save a painter in outer space. Wait, hang on a bit. Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived and save a whale in outer space. Maybe don’t tell her she’ll be forced to give birth to a hitherto unknown baby in space hospital and then forced to give that baby up and be unable to conceive any more children. That might put her off the whole thing.

Tell her this is the story of Amelia Pond. And this how it ends. Except it can’t, can it? Because this ending’s nonsense and makes a mockery of everything you’ve said for the last few years for the sake of a contrived tearjerker of a farewell. I think she’ll feel really cheated by that. So just come back and rescue us and we’ll think of another way for it to end.

More fittingly, Rory and I would probably have just decided that our last encounter with the angels was just one close shave too many, and decided to stay at home, hanging up our travelling shoes forever. And that would be great, right? Because isn’t just utterly fairy tale? Don’t all the characters in fairy tales grow up eventually and live happily ever after? It can still be dramatic, a big gut-wrenching decision. Hey, you could even still have your tearjerker ending; you can watch us grow old together through the years, and feel the slow aching despair of watching your best friends take the slow path.

Or if we really are trapped in some temporal life sentence, tell you what… pilot the TARDIS back to somewhere (or somewhen) nearby, catch the train into New York and spend the rest of our lives with us here. We’ll get into all sorts of hijinks. I’m sure there are plenty of alien incursions into New York which need repelling. Think of it as a kind of spin-off from our regular adventures.

Plus Rory says that if he has to sit out a lifetime in the 20th century, he sees no reason why you shouldn’t as well. You floppy haired dingus.

LINK to Time-Flight: one mentions New York and the other’s set in it.

NEXT TIME… A party in the nineteen twenties, that’s more like it. We solve the puzzling case of The Unicorn and the Wasp.

Brands, association and Time-Flight (1982)

timeflightIt’s an irresistible pun: Time-Flight is unashamedly upwardly mobile. How better to describe this cheap-as-chips story which has Concorde casually hangared in it? Not so much a guest star, more a guest prop and one which is a gleaming white symbol of 1980s materialism.

I suspect there’s a cohort of new Who fans who have never heard of Concorde, or who know about it only vaguely as a historical relic (not unlike a police box). It might be difficult for them to understand what all the fuss was about. But this is not a story about any old aircraft; it would never have got made if there was only a mere 747 available to shoot in.

This is a story which, at a conceptual level, is about the most famous and exclusive aircraft in the world. The sight of it in Doctor Who is so odd, you can’t quite believe what you’re seeing, as the Doctor (sporty Peter Davison) and gal pals Nyssa (sensitive Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (sassy Janet Fielding) clamber up the boarding steps to take their seats, stow their luggage and observe the no-smoking sign. It’s a strange mix of aspiration and delusion, but it’s also the TV show’s first commercial brand deal.

Time-Flight is sometimes quoted as Doctor Who’s stab at product placement, but that misunderstands the term. Product placement in films and TV productions is about covert advertising of products which the viewing public may be convinced to buy, simply by having them featured within the narrative. Think of the Sugar Puff ads in Daleks – Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.

But this is hardly product placement, because no one watching Time-Flight was about to run out the next day and book tickets on Concorde. In 1982, Concorde was an experience for the affluent and the globe-trotting. It was for people who had the money to spend on cutting edge technology, luxury service and status symbols. It’s not that no-one in Doctor Who’s audience was like that, it’s that hardly anyone was like that. Concorde was a prestige product for the super rich and Doctor Who a mass market product for anyone with a TV licence. Ticket sales, I confidently suggest, would not have taken off.

What it is about, is brand association and that’s a different thing altogether. That Doctor Who was suddenly interested in brand in 1982 fits in with an image of a time when the trappings of wealth were gaining visibility, but it also chimes with producer John Nathan-Turner’s ambitions for the show. He always wanted a deal with an airline – Qantas had been on his radar since the introduction of air hostess companion Tegan. His desire for consistent, stylised costumes for the regular cast had one eye on marketing opportunities. He reportedly also thought Tegan’s haircut could start a fashion trend. More than any of the show’s other producers, he was entrepreneurial. Having Concorde in Doctor Who must have delighted him. It speaks of ambition, glamour and prestige.

(All the more reason why it was such a bad idea to leave this story to the end of the season, when the series’ budget was running perilously low. Doctor Who was always a cheap show, but Time-Flight looks bargain basement. Instead of lifting the show up, the world’s most expensive set dressing only throws the story’s tacky interiors and scatological monsters into stark contrast. It’s like parking a Maserati in a K-Mart.)

So why does Concorde, or more specifically its operators British Airways, want a brand association with Doctor Who? The answer’s surprisingly simple. In 1982, Doctor Who was a massive hit.

This gets overlooked a bit, but Season 19 brought loads of viewers back to the show. The previous year, Tom Baker’s last, had averaged 5.8m viewers. Peter Davison’s first series brought in 9.2m. Five of its episodes, including Time-Flight Part One, attracted over 10m viewers. It is, in fact, Classic Who’s last taste of broad, mainstream popularity, and comparable to the ratings peaks of Seasons 2, 17 and the Hinchcliffe years. It rated far better than the 21st century version of the show has done in recent years.

So through Time-Flight, British Airways gets associated with a hugely popular, family oriented brand which attracts millions of viewers. Two grand old British institutions combined for a (ahem) thrilling  aviation based adventure. BA gets its logo and uniforms and livery broadcast on publically funded telly, reaching an audience that advertising on commercial networks can’t. No wonder when Nathan-Turner bluffed them by mentioning he might go with Air France instead, they rushed to secure the deal.

(Can you imagine it though? French versions of flight crew Stapley, Bilton and Scobie… and Angela Clifford to boot! Faffing about with outrageous French accents! Sacre bleu.)

From our fannish perspective, Time-Flight is an infamous disaster of a story. But I suspect no-one at either the BBC or British Airways considered it so at the time (neither did readers of Doctor Who Monthly, who placed it fourth out of seven in the mag’s Season 19 poll). Like so many other Doctor Who stories, this just wasn’t built for multiple viewings, let alone the intense scrutiny thousands of Whoheads subject it to. But as a disposable piece of cross promotion disguised as popular entertainment, I suspect it was mostly viewed as a success.

If anything, it’s amazing there weren’t more examples of it in Classic Who. That would-be story about the Master (Anthony Ainley) involved in a banking fraud? Sponsored by Barclays! (Plus he could disguise himself for no good reason again! He loves that schtick. Maybe a fatcat banker called Mr East) Or if we’re sticking with luxury transport, surely there’s be some hidden alien menace in the back seats of a fleet of Rolls Royces? Or perhaps the silencing suds of doom might return, branded by Imperial Leather?

But hang on, I’ve got a better idea. New Who could make a Time-Flight sequel, but with Virgin Galactic! More hi-jinks with vanity travel for the super rich. With a cameo by Branson! Call it One More TimeFlight. Or maybe Wham Bam Sharaz Sharam, An Orange Kalid Sky? Or if the pooey Plasmatons return, perhaps The Pile High Club?

Oh yes. This trip’s not over yet. Sit down, strap in and hang on.

LINK TO The Silurians. UNIT and the Brigadier get name checked.

NEXT TIME… We have a New York stop over when The Angels Take Manhattan. Which is handy, as the Captain wants us to try that new Indonesian restaurant he’s found.

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