Teasing, traumatising and The Web of Fear (1968)

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Prior to the miraculous discovery of nearly all of The Web of Fear in 2013, this story was a teasing, tantalising experience. Unique among all Doctor Who stories, we had only its first episode and that instalment is a taut, intriguing affair. (Well, I say “taut”. It does have several explanation-free minutes of  padding about the TARDIS being immobilised by web in space). 

Still, it does what all first episodes are meant to do – hook us and leave us eager for the next chapter. But it was a promise which couldn’t be fulfilled, so more so than any other missing story, it felt like The Web of Fear kept us hanging.

With the recovery of four of its five missing episodes, the picture has changed again. There’s much to love in this story, but with Episodes 2, 4, 5 and 6 now back for us to lap up, it’s now clear they have a different tone to that opening segment we knew so well. We shouldn’t be surprised – first episodes are meant to entice and ensnare. If the remaining episodes feel more talky, more stagey, more filled with running in and out of rooms, that’s fine because that’s what episodes two to six are always for.

The continuing absence of Episode 3 (fallen into the hands of some Bondian super villain, I like to think. “How do you like my film print of The Web of Fear Episode 3? Exquisite, don’t you think? I keep it with my six Mona Lisas and four Detective Comics Issue 1s, because it’s important to surround oneself with beauty in this cruel world. But I’m afraid you’ve seen too much. Gerald, take him to the shark-infested dungeon….”

Sorry, I got carried away there. The continuing absence of Episode 3 reshapes the story again. It divides it into two, quite distinct portions; almost like we’ve had two separate missing stories returned to us. Episodes 1 and 2 form a precursor to the story proper. There’s scene setting galore, but without the catalytic presence of the Doctor (a galvanised Patrick Troughton), the second episode is really only gently elaborating on material offered in the first. Really, if we had to be robbed of any episode of this story, 2 is the standout candidate.

Instead, the search for Episode 3 goes on in car boot sales, Mormon church halls and remote African relay stations everywhere. It’s a pity it’s missing because it’s where the story kicks into gear. 

It’s where, with the arrival of Col. Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the ensemble cast is finally complete.  From here on in, it’s all inter-character suspicion, sporadic attacks from the Yeti and trips forward and back between Fortress and platform, with a few peeps getting knocked off as they go. Ep 3 is the bridge between the more sedate opening instalments and the action runaround of the second half.

You can see this shift in gear most clearly be comparing episodes 2 and 4. Ep 4 is outstanding, helped no end by a bumper battle sequence shot on film. It’s a contender for the best single episode of the sixties, and one of the best of the whole classic series. 2 is a little office bound plodder by comparison. Without Episode 3 to link them, it almost seems like they’re from different stories.

So Episodes 4 to 6, cut off from the rest of the story, feel like a standalone three-parter. 5 and 6 aren’t quite as glorious as 4; the constant game of to and fro between locations starts to wear, Professor Travers’ (Jack Watling) possessed acting is a little too eye-rolling and there’s an unnecessarily large coterie of characters hanging around in that climax in the Intelligence’s lair. But it does have that pervading sense of menace that characterises the best Doctor Who, and that’s largely down to director Douglas Camfield.

In fact, it’s Camfield, with his pinpoint accurate casting and his ability to ramp up the tension, who is key to this story’s success. Far more so than writers Mervyn Haisman & Henry Lincoln, whose script is a standard monstery runabout with some added “who’s the traitor” intrigue and some conspicuous trappings of mysticism thrown in. Pyramidal structures become important and voodoo-like totems of the Yeti spell doom for those who carry them. Possession, which we now think of as standard Doctor Who fodder, was pioneered by Haisman and Lincoln in The Abominable Snowmen and is repeated here.

But even putting aside its fascination with the supernatural , the script is not outstanding. The dialogue is pretty basic and the premise itself is shaky. London underground at a standstill would be a major national crisis, so why is the whole place not teeming with soldiers? Is the rest of the world just looking on helplessly, not stepping in? What is the web and what is the fungus? Are they the same thing? How does this all work?

What Camfield manages to do, is to divert our attention from the script’s shortcomings. As always, he pushes his cast further than any other Doctor Who director does. John Rollason, as oily journalist Chorley is particularly good in Episode 6, driven to near hysteria after running around unseen in the tunnels for an episode or two. Another terrific moment is given by Nicholas Courtney at the end of Episode 4, as he returns to the fortress having lost a number of his men in the fight with the Yeti. He looks genuinely traumatised. It’s the sort of visceral reaction that Camfield gets out of his actors and which raises the dramatic stakes.

People often point out that this story set the template for Seventies Doctor Who, and they’re right. But we don’t often credit Camfield as one of the architects of that, even though he directed this and its close cousin The Invasion. By directing the progamme as action adventure so well, he shows the way for others to follow. He’s as much an instigator of that new version of Who as producers Bryant and Sherwin.

All this is clear from having most of The Web of Fear back. It used to be the story that teased us with a single episode. Now it’s teasing us by missing a single episode, being tantalisingly close to completion. And when that Blofeld decides to release the episode back to us, and we can see the whole thing, the story’s shape will change again. May that day come swiftly. I’ll be sitting cross legged under my pyramid, holding my little Yeti totem close until it does.

LINK TO Empress of Mars: again, returning Season Five monsters.

NEXT TIME: Fingers on lips! Pick up your Olympic torch, we’re off to Fear Her.

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Exits, Isms and Empress of Mars (2017)

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So, it’s 2017 and Mark Gatiss wants to write an episode with Ice Warriors and which refers back to the Pertwee era at every available opportunity. The real question is, why aren’t we on Peladon?

Surely with Brexit looming, here’s a chance to return to Doctor Who’s long tradition of commenting on current political issues. Not to mention a chance to return to leather-clad soldiers, badger wigged extras and furry subterranean beasts. There could be a Nigel Farage style villain as the inevitable high priest. It’s The Exit of Peladon (well, they surely would never call it a Pexit).C’mon, add an unconvincing fight scene for the Doctor and we’re there!

But of course, it wasn’t to be, and with good reason. For one thing, it’s just too obvious. For another, the BBC wouldn’t dare court controversy on such a hot topic with its own existence and remit so politicized at the moment. And for a third, Doctor Who can just be more subtle than that. Even though it’s not The Exit of Peladon, this story has been influenced by Brexit, and has much to say about nationalism.

In fact, there are a few different isms to navigate through here, all of them embodied in the group of Victorian-era soldiers camped out in the Martian underground for this story. Their nationalism – putting Britain’s interests (however they are interpreted) first – is inherent. It’s these characters’ starting point.

From there, they, particularly the fervent Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), also exhibit imperialism – the belief that the British empire should extend its reach through acquiring new territories. And through their treatment of Friday (Richard Ashton), they also show their colonialism, a belief in the inherent cultural superiority of a colonial race of people over an indigenous people.

(The reference to Robinson Crusoe, a book often criticised for its colonialist attitude, is clear, but it’s a shame Friday never gets to reclaim his original Martian name, a step which could have slapped down the soldiers for their enforced domestication of him. What is it about Gatiss and monsters serving tea?)

Brexit may not, at heart, be about imperialism or colonialism, but I think it’s fair to say it’s about nationalism. It’s reflecting a political swing towards right-wing nationalism around the world, whose other expressions include Trump, Le Pen and here in Australia, the resurgence of One Nation. Don’t worry, randomers, this isn’t about to get super political. But I’m saying that this is the environment that Empress of Mars was made in. And if its basic message, unsubtle as it is, is colonialism is bad, it’s underlying theme is, and so is the nationalism it springs from.

This critique of nationalism shows up in the soldiers themselves. They’re a rum lot, and that’s for sure. Godsacre (Anthony Calf) is a coward and a deserter. Catchlove, a warmongering zealot. Jackdaw (Ian Beattie), a pillager. (His thieving of a small blue crystal from the Ice Queen’s tomb is not just a call back to Metebelis, but a potent indicator of invading forces wanting to take a land’s natural resources for themselves). Fine and upstanding examples of her Majesty’s army, they are not. They fit the stereotype about Britain’s colonial forces, in that they were not always made up of the best soldiers available. As symbols of Britain’s colonial past, their personal shortcomings reflect poorly on nationalism as an idea. Greed, treachery and conflict spring from this, this story says.

It’s not all that different from Gatiss’ last Ice Warrior story, Cold War, where a bunch of Russian submariners, some good, some bad, came up against the physical and technological might of the Ice Warriors. All out war loomed, but there the Doctor convinced the Martian General to leave in peace. The two opposing forces walked away from that flashpoint.

Here, something quite different happens. As fighting breaks out, Friday undermines his own side to argue the Earth soldiers’ case. And Godsacre kills chief hawk Catchlove, and pledges allegiance to a new queen, Iraxxa (Adele Lynch). It’s another twist on the theme of “it doesn’t have to end in war” and it shows the complexity in the characters of Friday and Godsacre. But whereas the Cold War Russians are allowed to float away, pride more or less intact, here the British soliders capitulate.

It’s a funny ending. What life can those soldiers expect on Mars? A short and uncomfortable one, probably. But over and above that, it’s a repudiation of imperialism; they came as conquerers and stayed as servants.

It’s also a rejection of another ism: isolationalism. Rather than struggle against the inevitable, these men choose to interact with their interplanetary neighbours. Perhaps a partnership between the Martian and um, Earthian forces, rather than a submission to sovereignty might have been a more satisfying ending, but still the point is made. Plus, it adds a wry double meaning to the former war cry of “God save the queen,” now repurposed as a castaway’s rescue call. Reach out, this story says, rather than fight back.

Still, things might change again. In a shout out to remainers and Doctor Who fans alike, the story ends with Mars making contact with the Galactic Federation, the Pertwee era’s version of the EU. Who knows what will happen when Alpha Centauri (Ysanne Churchman) and its pals arrive? Mars is up for membership and maybe Godsacre and his men will be the freed from their allegiance to the Queen to become Earth’s first representatives at this union.

Their horizons are about to expand far wider than they ever imagined. It’s may not be The Exit of Peladon, but we know where Empress of Mars’ sympathies lie.

LINK to The Bells of St John. It features a monster from Classic Who Season 5 (which, as it happens, will work for our next story too), but why stop there? Why not include the links to The Curse of Peladon, The Monster of Peladon(mining equipment as a weapon, anyone?), Day of the Daleks (RHIP), The Green Death (Jackdaw stealing a blue crystal), The Tomb of the Cybermen, Tooth and Claw, Sleep No Moreand a line which sounds suspiciously like one from The Robots of Death. (“They could slaughter whole civilisations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower. “ cribs “It can punch a fist sized hole in six inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one”). Then there’s The Thing, Zulu, The Terminator, The Vikings, Star Wars and freakin’ Frozen. A parliament of references!

NEXT TIME: Stubborn old goat! We’re caught in The Web of Fear.

Towers, telephones and The Bells of Saint John (2013)

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They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. Steven Moffat.

The little Spandrells are watching a show at the moment called Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures. In it, an odd looking man (all teeth and curls, like a young Tom Baker) who works in a museum, travels back to the time of the dinosaurs to have some mildly educative adventures. He travels in time via a grandfather clock, which sits incongruously on whichever ancient landscape it arrives in. A TARDIS rip off, if I ever saw one.

Except, it works in a different thematic way to the blue police box exterior of the TARDIS. The grandfather clock very clearly says, it’s about time, kids. But when they made Doctor Who, they didn’t give him a clock, they gave him a police box – an everyday sight, a public object, an outpost of authority and a very British innovation. It symbolised lots of things, but what it didn’t do was baldly state, this is a time machine.

So, no clock. And crucially, no telephone either. It had no communications link back to 1960s England, or indeed any of its destinations. This police box was cut off from everything. Classic Who was made in the days when to conceive of a telephone was to imagine your handset connected to every other one by a complex array of cables. No such cable stretched to Skaro or Marinus. In fact, it takes until Logopolis for the show to visually acknowledge that police boxes even had phones. The TARDIS certainly didn’t.

By the 21st Century, things have changed, and the TARDIS is as connected as any other aspect of our modern lives by telephony. By the phone in the police box’s little exterior cupboard, by the one on the console, by various companions’ mobiles and even by the Doctor’s. The Bells of Saint John takes its title from the TARDIS’s phone (the little cupboardy one) and from the life-changing call which comes through on it, from impossible girl Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) to the Doctor in medieval seclusion (Matt Smith).

This seems like a particularly Steven Moffaty trait. After all, he first used this conceit of the exterior phone unexpectedly ringing in The Empty Childand returned to it inThe Time of the Doctor. But it was his predecessor Russell T Davies who first put a phone in the TARDIS in World War Three. And his supercharging of Rose’s Nokia 3801 in The End of the World confirmed that in this new version of Who, our heroes were not as cut off from their homes and loved ones as their 20th century counterparts were. They could call across space and even time. Like E.T., they could phone home.

This makes sense. The Doctor has a machine which can traverse the universe and its entire history. Technology way beyond our grasp. Of course, he’d have a phone. It would be kind of weird if he didn’t.

But that’s not why the TARDIS is a phone box; it’s not a symbol of communication. It’s not a lifeline between us and the Doctor. It wasn’t, in its original conception, a place you could call to or from for help. In fact, because it was explicitly disconnected from everything else in the universe, the fact that the police box had a useless phone reinforced how isolated our heroes were. The one thing they couldn’t do was call for help.

It may seem like a small detail, but giving the TARDIS telecommunications changes the show. Once you can, ahem, call the Doctor, he becomes the hero you can summon when needed. Winston Churchill, for instance, calls directly through to the console. Clara calls when she needs help cooking a turkey. It’s the show’s equivalent of Batman’s bat signal. Phone him up and our hero comes running. Add this to our modern Doctors’ ability to steer the TARDIS with pinpoint accuracy, and we really are a long way from the show’s beginnings, where the police box was a cosmic lifeboat, tossed on the waves of time and space, directionless, contactless and utterly isolated.

****

Telephones and computers, and what they might do to us, was the source of much concern in 1966’s The War Machinesand it’s nice to see how little has changed by The Bells of Saint John. There’s always mileage for Doctor Who in technophobia, it’s just that by 2013, that fear is centred on wifi. There’s still a big tower though, from which the bad guys can broadcast their evil, brain harvesting scheme.

The Shard, like the Post Office Tower back in ‘66, represents another concern of modernity. In The War Machines, it was technology itself which grew a mind of its own and got ideas above its base station. Here, it’s technology wielded by a corporation, from within a monolith celebrating capitalism. It’s the stuff of conspiracy theories; shadowy suits manipulating us with a casual swipe up or down on an iPad. They can even make aeroplanes fall from the sky. This is playing on very contemporary fears.

It makes sense that here is where the Great Intelligence should make its return. Being a formless yet sentient spirit, it seems right that it now should lurk within the Cloud, like some particularly malignant piece of code. Certainly, it seems more fitting than in The Snowmen, where it represented the Victorian fascination with the paranormal (if you squint). Funnily enough, though, that’s what the Intelligence was in its 60s conception – a mystic supernatural presence from beyond the astral plane, not a ghost hiding in the machine. But – spoiler alert – we’ll get there is a couple of posts’ time.

For now, let’s just reflect on another of this episode’s big flashy statements. Never mind a telephone, this Doctor’s got serious technology and a motorbike! He rides up the side of the Shard with only a perfunctory line about anti-gravs to cover the implausibly of it all, running straight over the shiny surface of capitalism with those big rubber tyres. “Can he actually do that?” asks an astonished supporting character. Dude, this guy’s an ancient alien superhero with a time machine, a magic wand and a direct line through to his snog box. What can’t he actually do?

Yup, times have really changed.

LINK TO Amy’s Choice. Both Matt Smith stories, and hooray for an easy link.

NEXT TIME…God save the Queen, it’s Empress of Mars.

Sliding Doors, Family Feud and Amy’s Choice (2010)

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Way back in Four to Doomsday, someone – Persuasion, I think – described love as the exchange of two fantasies. As it happens, it’s also an apt description of Amy’s Choice, a beguiling little story which imagines a scenario whereby the underlying tension within its TARDIS crew, now consisting of three spunky 20 somethings, can be exploited.

That crew and the faultline that runs through it centres on Amy (willowy Karen Gillan). Amy’s natural desire to have her cake and eat it too means she’s travelling with both her fiancé Rory (boy next door Arthur Darvill) and her new crush, the Doctor (boy next century Matt Smith). It’s a bizarre love triangle for sure and her choice between the two is symbolised by the two dream worlds she’s asked to choose between by sinister genie, the Dream Lord (Toby Jones).

One scenario is set in sleepy old Leadworth, where the Ponds have settled into domestic stultification. Rory has an unconvincing ponytail, Amy an unconvincing baby bump but in this rustic little village, they have made a home. (Incidentally, there’s a funny upwardly mobile progression in companion’s homes in 21st century Who. Rose lived in a council estate, Martha in a city flat, Donna in a suburban house and now, Amy, in a big house in the country) Leadworth represents everything Rory is: stable, reliable and a bit dull. The quiet life.

Then, of course, the quiet life is disturbed by a group of deadly aliens hiding inside a bunch of retirement home residents. Turns out the Rory option is an actually a Doctor Who story by Douglas Adams.

The other scenario is set inside the TARDIS and is an analogue for the Doctor. In this scenario, there’s travel, adventure and technology. As Leadworth is Rory’s home, so is the TARDIS the Doctor’s. It speaks of excitement and thrills. The danger in this story is external, pseudo-scientific and oblique: a cold star threatening to freeze the TARDIS solid, with our heroes trapped inside. A cold, high place above the universe. So this scenario is a Doctor Who story by Christopher H Bidmead.

As much as Amy’s Choice is about showing us two types of suitor Amy’s attracted to and the internal conflict she’s grappling with, it’s also showing us two different ways of Doctor Who. Like flicking channels between a madcap alien invasion in an English village or a race against time in a doomed ship.

It’s Sliding Doors, isn’t it? But with Gwyneth Paltrow pursuing one lifetime living on The Pirate Planet and another in Castrovalva. Actually, that sounds immeasurably better than Sliding Doors. I need a parallel universe where Sliding Doors was like that! Then you could skip between two universes, one with the original Sliding Doors and one with my new Whoish version… and so it goes on until the whole thing has disappeared up its own causal nexus.

***

The third story being told here, is that of the Dream Lord. He’s a mysterious supernatural being with power over the TARDIS who wants to inflict mayhem on the lives of the Doctor and his companions by submitting them to a series of playful but deadly games of make believe. I suppose that viewed from that standpoint, the success of Amy’s Choice depends on how eager you were to see an updated, less racist version of The Celestial Toymaker.

The Dream Lord turns out to be one of Doctor Who’s favourite villainous archetypes; the twisted version of the Doctor himself. There’s enough to form Family Feud team – the Monk, the Master, the Valeyard, and now little old Dreamy. (“We asked 100 people what’s the most commonly used template for a Doctor Who villain! Survey says…”) It’s the most obvious kind of villain you can do, so it has to be wheeled out carefully and sparingly. Luckily, the Dream Lord’s a bit different from the rest of that dark clothed, maniacally cackling lot.

The Dream Lord’s point of difference from all these other dark Doctors is taunting. He spends the whole episode verbally tormenting the Doctor and his Ponds, needling away at every insecurity. The way he suddenly pops into being, just when our heroes are busy trying to do something, to hector and undermine them, is very unnerving; almost a visual representation of schizophrenia.

He also has a line in quotable, biting wit, particularly aimed at the Doctor. “The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first-year fashion student…”, the impish snide says, “I’m surprised you haven’t got a little purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” We’ve never heard anyone talk to the Doctor like that. And it hurts because it’s so very, very true.

But it’s also the trait which tips the Doctor off as to his tormentor’s true identity. As the Doctor, says “there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” So the Dream Lord is a personification of the Doctor’s self-loathing, and that’s something really new. Self-doubt, we’ve seen. But never the very human insecurity of criticising everything about yourself. It’s a novel twist on that conga line of wannabe Doctors.

So it’s a shame when he turns out to be nothing more than a speck of cosmic pollen with ideas above its station. He could have been a great returning villain, but instead he’s a figment of everyone’s imagination. Wasn’t too long ago we were randoming Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which has a similar, “it was all a dream” ending, and in both cases, the risk taken is that audience might think the whole affair inconsequential.

How Amy’s Choice manages to avoids the trap of seeming like a diverting but ultimately pointless fantasy, is that it has a real impact on our three heroes. The love triangle is resolved when Amy loses Rory thanks to the first of his many faux deaths. She decides she’ll do anything to have him back. She chooses home, not adventure. One fantasy has been exchanged for another.

LINK TO New Earth: nurses who would be doctors!

NEXT TIME… The Bells of Saint John are ringing.

Bouncing, flouncing and New Earth (2006)

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New Earth. New world. New Doctor. On one hand, that’s all this story is thinking about. We’ve got a shiny new Doctor and he’s much less angsty than the last one so let’s take him for a spin. Given that he spent much of his introductory episode convalescing, here is our first full date with the Tenth Doctor. While we’re at it, let’s go to an alien planet for the first time and meet some cat people.

Amongst all this newness, writer Russell T Davies brings us something old, flat and bitchy in the form of Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker, and lots of other people this ep). Cassandra is a vampy socialite, reduced, after too many plastic surgeries, to a piece of skin stretched out across a metal frame. That’s why the lady is a trampoline.

She’s her own canvas, but now she has the ability to jump out of her tautly pulled self and into other people. This not only gives Billie Piper and David Tennant the chance to ham it up for a few scenes but also cuts down nicely on the number of CGI shots needed. Showy, saucy and economical! John Nathan-Turner would have loved it.

Cassandra is a critique of the vacuous pursuit of physical beauty. RTD famously thought her up while watching plastic faced Hollywood actresses at award ceremonies. I like to imagine he turned to Julie Gardner at that moment, and giving his best JN-T impression said, “I think I’ve found my next Doctor Who villain.” And like the best villains, she’s howlingly funny, so she’s too good to lie in little pieces on the floor of Platform One. Her return seems like the standard victory lap we might expect from your funny, slightly odious guest villain. She’s this century’s Sil.

But RTD is too smart to just bring back a character this promising, just to let her do the same thing she did last episode. He lets her out of her frame, lets her bounce around inside Rose and flounce about inside the Doctor and even slum it for a moment inside one of this story’s infected human guinea pigs. But this last body swap has a transformative effect on her; she’s shocked by the loneliness and hopelessness of these germ farms. “They’re so alone,” she murmurs. “They keep reaching out, just to hold us. All their lives and they’ve never been touched.”

This newfound compassion follows her through her final body swap into henna tattooed underling Chip (Sean Gallagher). When he starts to expire from the sheer delight of finally having Cassandra, um, inside him, she finally accepts what the previous angsty Doctor said to her, that everything has its time and everyone dies. His preppy replacement is kinder. He takes her back to the last day that someone called her beautiful.

It’s a swanky party, full of tuxedoed men, who really should have dialogue but don’t. Turns out it’s herself encompassed inside Chip who tells younger her, encompassed inside Zoe Wanamaker, that she’s beautiful. And thus long before Steven Moffat has got his showrunners on, things have got all timey wimey.

But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. That the story of a bunch of cat nurses incubating every disease ever in a bunch of human lab rats (who should really have dialogue, but don’t) in order to cure a bunch of other humans, and the Doctor fixing everything with a magic switch is fine. But it’s Cassandra’s story which is really emotionally effective. And it’s so expertly hidden, only revealing itself right at the end of the episode. It’s what the story’s been about the whole time – that you can’t fight nature and you can’t preserve life at any cost. Sooner or later, it all catches up with you. It’s harsh and moving and far more interesting than events in a big ol’ space hospital.

*****

New Earth is brimming with confidence. It’s so sure than the combination of Tennant and Piper is going to be a massive hit. Which is remarkable when you think about… how annoyingly smug they are.

“Ooh, travelling with you, I just love it! Oooh, our first date, we had chips!” Ooh, put a sock in it, the pair of you. We romanceless nerds don’t tune into Doctor Who to watch date night in space. We certainly don’t want you with your perfect handsome/pretty loviness being rubbed in our faces!

I’m being flippant but actually, there’s something pretty seismic happening in New Earth with our perception of the Doctor. Tennant’s charm and good looks make the Doctor seem dateable for the first time. It’s no surprise that Rose and he are flirting and skipping about, reminiscing about chips. And when Cassandra inhabits the Doctor, she articulates the change in him pretty well. “Oo, he’s slim and a little bit foxy,” she purrs, confirming what the audience can already see. But then she calls Rose out: “You’ve thought so too. I’ve been inside your head. You’ve been looking. You like it.” We’ve positioned the Doctor, for the first time, as a potential suitor. That stripey brown suit of his? It’s made of boyfriend material.

Cassandra’s invitation for Rose, and for the audience, to view the Doctor as desirable, as a sexual object, is a first (with the possible exception of the TV Movie, I suppose). We take it for granted now, that the Doctor can actually be a love interest, since Tennant, Smith and Capaldi have had regular squeezes. It’s easy to overlook what a shift this was for the program. Eccleston, even though his interest in Rose, sealed with a big time vortexy smooch, was clearly signposted, somehow remained slightly avuncular. Tennant is the Doctor you want to randomly snog, as Cassandra does, because he happens to be there and you can. He’s the one you can safely admit to ogling. That never happened with Eccleston.

And because the perving and snogging and associated fascination is led by Cassandra and Rose, it’s a female gaze that New Earth is celebrating. It’s no wonder that so many female viewers (Mrs Spandrell included) joined the show when Tennant began his TARDIS tenancy. It’s not just that Tennant’s cute. It’s that we were, for the first time, invited to notice that the Doctor’s cute. “Do you like Doctor Who now?” I recall a bemused friend asking Mrs Spandrell back then. “Yes,” the old trouble and strife said. “Because the new Doctor is hot.

All of which leads us to a peculiar inversion regarding Cassandra. She was created as a reaction to how women are viewed and how they react physically to that. She ends up reversing that gaze onto the Doctor. Once he was her judge, jury and executioner. Now he’s her toyboy. It’s a very new world indeed.

LINK TO Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS: both have zombie-like monsters.

NEXT TIME: If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop. It’s time to ponder Amy’s Choice.

 

Friendly buttons, family dramas and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013)

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I once said to a fellow fan that I disliked stories which end too conveniently. I think I used Terror of the Autons as an example. Towards the end of that story, there are Autons everywhere. The Nestene is descending. All’s going to hell in a handbasket. Then the Doctor (or the Master, to be precise) flicks a switch, the Nestene’s repelled and all the Autons topple over. All too handy, I complained. The other fan looked at me beadily and said, “you must dislike a lot of Doctor Who stories then.”

He had a point. But ever since the show returned in 2005, the use of a narrative shortcut to drive us to the climax has become more prominent. It happens at about the 35 minute mark. Usually, it’s a near-miraculous catch all development that saves the day in about 5 minutes, no matter how widespread the problem, how many monsters there are or how desperate the situation has become. Usually, it come courtesy of a gadget, or a magical substance or a reversal of the bad guy’s own powers.

I call it the “magic switch”, meaning there’s often a big switch to throw to solve the story’s problem. But it’d be equally valid to call it a “big friendly button”.

What then to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which blatantly uses a big friendly button to conclude its story? Openly acknowledges it. Puts it on screen and gives it a name. Rarely has the series so boldly referenced its own narrative limitations. Why on earth draw attention to it? Unless writer Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat were looking for a wry in-joke. “We’ve now reached the point in the episode for the magic switch, so here it is!”

I think it’s more than self-knowing commentary. I think the big friendly button is a cry of defiance. “We know!” our authors seem to be saying. “Of course, we know. But you find a way to build up a big, bold adventure story, throw everything under the sun in it, and then wrap it up neatly in 5 mins. So sometimes we use a big friendly button. Get over it! We do that sometimes.”

*****

Ages ago, before he made 7 years of Doctor Who, the Moff once made comment on the classic show’s occasional over concentration on the TARDIS as a setting for stories. “We kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe,” he confidently declared.

But then, of course, there’s this episode, where we explore the wardrobe extensively. In the pre-publicity, the Moff declared how he’d loved and now wanted to emulate the TARDIS tour section of The Invasion of Time, indicating a change of tune about the whole Narnia/wardrobe divide. I can understand the appeal. With an extensive world within the TARDIS, there’s a world of potential adventure in their too.

Stories which use the labyrinthine TARDIS corridors as a location apply slightly different emphases each time. The Invasion of Time uses it as the setting for a hunt/chase sequence. Castrovalva uses it as a confounding maze which ensnares unwary travelers. Way back in Inside the Spaceship it was not so much vast as claustrophobic, a place which played tricks on the mind. The same all the years later in The Doctor’s Wife, where it also became a mental torture chamber for Amy and Rory.

It’s all of these things in JTTCOTT. But what it never feels like is the slow perilous climb down into the heart of the ship which the title suggests. It feels a bit like bait and switch, because the suggestion is that it’ll be a Jules Verne-style descent into the core of the beast, facing peril as our heroes break through each stratum.

Instead, it feels much more random and disjointed; not a descent deep into the craft as The Invasion of Time and Castrovalva felt like, but a journey twisting and turning in all sorts of directions. And maybe that’s appropriate, because can a multi-dimensional time ship be said to have a centre at all? Still, it doesn’t feel like a journey to anywhere in particular, but with a lot of interesting sightseeing along the way.

****

Our companions on this meandering expedition are the Van Baalen brothers: Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and Tricky (Jahvel Hall). Roughead salvage collectors, this story is the backdrop to a family drama which unfolds. It turns out that following an industrial accident, Tricky has been fooled into believing that he’s an android by Gregor. As an example of a commitment to gullibility in the face of easily accessible evidence, it’s right up there with Guy Crawford’s needless eyepatch and Countess Scarlioni’s alien marriage.

Gregor initially tries to pass it off as a joke that got a little out of hand, but later confesses he did it out of jealousy for their father’s respect. There are a couple of problems with this besides the simple straining of credulity. Firstly, the Van Baalen boys are sadly not interesting enough for us to care about their, admittedly unusual, inter-family dramas. Secondly, said dramas have nothing to do with the predicament at hand. When Gregor eventually fesses up to Tricky in a spare moment between set pieces, it should be a major revelation. But Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) who is a silent observer to this exchange, is leaning against a wall with a look that says, “and this effects me exactly how?”

****

But then, if any of this, or anything else about JTTCOTT bothers you, worry not – because none of it ever happened. Our big friendly button not only brought this story to a close, it also reset the whole affair. This kind of ending worries me more than the magic switch. If the story’s events were so inconsequential they can be erased at a moment’s notice – why were they worth watching in the first place?

All that’s left is a couple of Wizard of Oz style moments where characters kind of remember something happening to them, but can’t recall why. The Van Baalen brothers might even, if you squint, be stand-ins for the Tin Man (Tricky), the brainless scarecrow (Bram) and the cowardly lion (Gregor).  The Doctor, I suppose, has been our Wizard and Clara our Dorothy, although as I recall, Dorothy never got chased by time burnt zombie creatures and Clara doesn’t even have a little dog. And The Wizard of Oz didn’t hang around in the vehicle that transports its heroes to the site of the story. We kids want Oz, not the cyclone-borne farmhouse.

Or something like that. *Presses big friendly button*

LINK TO Planet of Fire: Companions with things burnt into their skin!

NEXT TIME: Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! We’re checking in for treatment on New Earth.

Stories, swimwear and Planet of Fire (1984)

planet of fire

Put aside, for a moment, the standard line on this story: that its main distinguishing feature is its requirement to incorporate a lengthy wishlist of script elements – your writing out of him, your introducing her, and your specified location of the other. Forget all that, and without reference to Wikipedia, see if you can answer this question:

What is Planet of Fire about?

No, go on, I’ll wait.

If you’re like me (lucky, lucky you), although you’ve watched Planeta de Fuego many times, you’re never quite sure what story it’s trying to tell. I think the reason is, it’s trying to tell several stories at once, and none are the dominant one. There’s lots going on – most of it interesting and well played, but the central dramatic idea behind the story, whatever it is, is lost. Let’s try to find it.

Perhaps it’s that a community needs to be rescued from an impending volcanic eruption, but is paralysed by religious superstition. This has real dramatic potential, but it’s played and directed like the cast and crew are on a leisurely holiday somewhere picturesque and summery. No one acts as if they’re sitting on a geological time bomb, even though they talk about it a lot. Compare this to Inferno, which has a similar underlying threat that permeates the whole thing with tension and a sense of doom.

Or perhaps it’s that a mad zealot is trying to gain control of his society so he can execute anyone he pleases, ostensibly in the name of religion but clearly for power’s sake. Again, not a bad plot and one which can and has been the basis of Doctor Who stories from The Aztecs to The Curse of Peladon. And there’s no doubt that Timanov (Peter Wyngarde) is as bad an egg as that long line of high priests ever produced; listen to him speak in his opening scene, justifying how he incinerates people. “It’s still a wise precaution to send the occasional free-thinker to the flames,” he opines to new apprentice Malkon (Edward Highmore), while strolling around some 1980s version of an AirBnB, complete with exotic ceiling sculptures.“It can be a rewarding experience for those consumed in the flames. Unbelievers are such unhappy souls.”

I mean, the guy’s a monster. He should clearly be the story’s villain, but in fact, he gets treated more sympathetically as the story goes on. This man who sides with the bad guy, dismisses any view which is contrary to his and, most tellingly burns people alive is basically humoured for four episodes and then asked to stick around because he can get stuff organised.

His punishment is having his religion disproven in front of his eyes, but when this happens, he does nothing to redeem himself for all the deaths he’s caused in the name of a bloke in a silver jumpsuit. He just gets forgotten about, disappearing between scenes. He got off lightly. By rights, he should die in the flames trying to stop the Master, but no, he just wanders off. Even Old Hepesh got savaged by a bear.

Perhaps this story is about the Master (Anthony Ainley), seeking to heal himself. The problem is here, that it needs some connection to the plight of the Sarns. The simplest way would be to make the Master’s renewal spark a process which would cause the death of everyone else (like, say, oh I don’t know, a volcanic explosion maybe?), thereby posing a moral threat which the Master wouldn’t care about but the Doctor (Peter Davison) would.

The other thing about the Master’s story is that the stakes should be higher. He should be on death’s door, and the healing fire of Sarn should be a last desperate gamble. But no, the problem’s more comical than that; the problem is that he’s shrunk himself to the size of a particularly gamey mouse. So instead of Peri (Nicola Bryant) stumbling on a cadaverous ghoul of a man, hiding in his TARDIS, she ends up chasing him around with her shoe. I mean, it’s funny, but screamingly odd.

Or perhaps it’s Turlough’s (Mark Strickson) story, one of homecoming and former sins redeemed. And it kind of is, but again, we get no real sense of what’s at stake. Would Turlough die if his fellow Trions came to save the Sarns? Or would his natural treachery mean he’d be tempted to let everyone die a fiery death as long as he could escape? Over at Flight Through Entirety (which you should definitely be listening to, if you’re not already), they made the interesting point that when Turlough calls in the Trions, he makes the same choice as the Doctor in The War Games. But there, we knew the Doctor was desperately terrified and the Time Lords punished him for his old crimes. Here, a man in a green jumpsuit simply tells Turlough that everyone’s moved on while he’s been away.

The truth is, Planet of Fire is telling all these stories at once, rather than emphasising the one with the most potential to grip its viewers. There’s something about this story – perhaps its light touch direction, or its wordy script – that consistently underplays its dramatic elements and robs it of focus. It has so much to say that it constantly stumbles over its words.

But y’know what though?

I rather love it.

I love that the production team travels half way around the world to film in a new, exotic quarry. I love that it’s sunny for once, so suddenly everyone starts taking their clothes off. Between shirtless Howard (Dallas Adams), bikini clad Peri and Turlough (of all people) in his sluggos, the show has suddenly gone all pervy. No doubt sexual appetites of all varieties were awakened in the show’s many teenage viewers.

I love that Kamelion, an awkward silver mannequin, which can barely stand up and no-one knows how to operate, gets a proper, pathos-filled farewell story rather than a throwaway line about having dropped him off to study graphology or something, because it’s an official companion now and we write out companions properly, dammit. And I love how everyone without fail is wearing too much eyeliner. The Master won’t even have to touch up his until The Doctor Falls.

And I love Davison, dashing in his shirt sleeves and question mark braces (best not to wonder about his sluggos. They’re probably smothered in question marks). Properly frustrated with Turlough’s secrecy. Properly invested in getting the Sarns to safety, while matter of factly scaring the daylights out of them (when talking about the volcanic vents the Sarns uses as shortcuts, he says, coolly, “It’s the same route the molten lava will take to burn you alive.”).

But most of all, I love that moment of shocked realisation after he watches the Master, his oldest friend, being burned alive by a trap he set. He stands at the TARDIS console, saying nothing, but clearly stunned and dismayed. As gentle and as moving a moment as any in the show’s history. There’s Davison, 90 mins from leaving the show, and still striving it make it more than strangely named white men in quarries wearing too much eyeliner.

In that single moment, there are the multiple complexities of the Doctor’s friendships; with the Master, Turlough, Kamelion and now Peri. And the revelation that those looking for easy answers – a magic flame, a benevolent god or running away from your past – will always be disappointed. Perhaps that’s what Planet of Fire’s about.

LINK TO Oxygen: critically injured Time Lords.

NEXT TIME: Buckle up for a Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

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