All posts by johnnyspandrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Illness, inadequacy and Vincent and the Doctor (2010)

vincent

Every so often, Doctor Who scores a creative contributor who pulls the show slightly off course. You may have justifiably expected Richard Curtis, writer, producer and director of many classic UK romcoms, to have produced merger of our favourite show and his previous work. Who Actually perhaps. Or Four Doctors and a Funeral. He brings with him a reputation for quick fire humour, fish out of water heroes, unlikely love matches and conspicuous use of pop music.

There are bits of all that going on in Vincent and the Doctor, but in the end, Curtis produces something much more contemplative and sober than his usual fare, although just as sentimental. He uses a story about post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran, a very Scottish actor for a Dutch artist) to illustrate how useless the Doctor (bandy Matt Smith) is when dealing with any of the personal, earthly concerns of day to day life. In this way, it’s a little like its Series Five running mate The Lodger, but where that episode indulged in some Curtis-like light comedy at the Doctor’s hopelessness in dealing with everyday life, Vincent and the Doctor shows how inadequate he is when dealing with an individual’s personal demons.

In Van Gogh’s case, that means his mental illness. It’s never named, though the highs and lows Vincent experiences seem to suggest bi-polar. (His ability to hear colours is not a side effect, though. It suggests he had synaesthesia). Vincent and the Doctor doesn’t shy away from showing Vincent’s problems on screen, as the show had done in the past; only a few episodes previously Winston Churchill’s depression was left unmentioned in Victory and the Daleks. Nor is it a character footnote in an otherwise standard Doctor Who runaround. It’s something Vincent must deal with before the story can be resolved. It’s intrinsic – a threat, as potent as any monster, to overcome.

The monster of this week, at least corporeally, is the Krafayis, a more successful space chicken than the last one the series experimented with in Arc of Infinity. Aside from the odd glimpse here and there, the Krafayis is budget-savingly invisible to all but Van Gogh. It would have been too gauche to make it a big, black dog, but the implication is clear. An invisible monster which only Van Gogh can see is the manifestation of his personal depression.

It’s the Doctor who first diagnoses the Krafayis, by using a comedy tech jacket with a handy rear vision mirror. It is he who sets up the confrontation with it at the church, but he proves hopeless and either capturing, reasoning or fighting the creature. It’s Van Gogh himself who has to tackle the birdy menace and finally skewer it on his own easel. Vincent has to face and defeat his demons himself. The Doctor is there to carry his paint box and look interesting.

The Doctor flounders when dealing with the Krafayis, and also with Van Gogh’s depression. The episode has two pivotal scenes exploring this.

The first is when, upon realising that the Doctor and Amy’s (Karen Gillan) visit is temporary, Vincent retreats to his room, distraught. The Doctor comes in to try and cheer him up and basically encourage him to carry on, but Van Gogh’s distress is too powerful. He cries and screams at the Doctor with such vehemence that it forces the Doctor from the room, defeated. This Time Lord’s got no defence against the unbearable torment of Vincent’s anguish.

The second moment is when a recovered Van Gogh sits down to paint the church, and the Doctor chooses his moment to directly address Vincent’s mental illness. But Van Gogh quietly silences the Doctor mid-sentence:

DOCTOR: It seems to me… depression is a very complex…
VINCENT: Shush. I’m working. 

Quite right too. No-one wants to hear the Doctor opine on depression. That would be a terribly mawkish part of the episode, doomed to fall clunkily on the floor. Curtis makes the right choice by allowing Vincent to speak for the audience and say, “Hush now. You stick to the sci-fi.”

Because he’s good at the sci-fi and that’s about to become useful. In an unusual structural quirk, the Krafayis is defeated a bit earlier than usual, at the end of the second act. The third act is where the Doctor and Amy decide to take Van Gogh to Musée d’Orsay in 2010, to show him a blockbuster exhibition of his work. There, a helpful gallery guide (Bill Nighy, a very British art expert for a French museum) explains that his work will eventually be celebrated as that of the greatest artist the world has ever known. In one of the show’s greatest ever scenes – one that’s uniquely Doctor Who – Van Gogh is moved to tears, finally validated, finally celebrated. The Doctor can’t deal with mental illness, but he at least has a time machine.

And strangely enough, in this moment, which finally shows us why this story had to be a Doctor Who episode, it becomes more like a Richard Curtis film than ever before. It’s partly the presence of Nighy – a frequent Curtis collaborator – partly the sudden arrival of an anthemic pop song by Athlete, and partly the big moment of emotion by the story’s hero. It’s sentiment writ large, in a way which Doctor Who has rarely pulled off before. Only if you add a frantic race to the airport, a heart-rending speech and a last minute decision by Amy to actually stay and marry Vincent could it be more Notting Hill.

If there’s a slight misstep, it’s at the end. The Doctor and Amy return Vincent to his time, forcing a second farewell scene. Then, they return excitedly to the Musée d’Orsay and Amy expects to see a slew of new paintings, prompted by proving to Vincent of his future adulation. Instead, the Doctor has to break it to her that Vincent’s timeline stayed largely unaltered and his suicide at the young age of 37 still occurred. The Doctor’s confident that whatever happened, they have added to the pile of good things in the artist’s life.

Geez, I hope he’s right. It would monumentally suck if he finally was driven out of his senses by, oh I don’t know, a mind-blowing trip into the future?

LINK TO Time and the Rani: They share the same title structure. And very little else.

NEXT TIME:  Hello, you stupid old man. It’s back to the South Pole for Twice Upon a Time.

Pip, Jane and Time and the Rani (1987)

rani

These days, it’s all about “plain English”. We’re all so desperate to be understood, we insist that language must be crisp and concise. It wasn’t like this in the 1980s, when things were louder, bolder and altogether more colourful. Back then, there was less plain English about, and more Pip ‘n’ Jane English. And it was altogether more fun.

Regular readers (bless you) will recall my unofficial guide to Sawardese, and are no doubt using it to spice up your everyday conversations. But let’s not stop there. Let’s take a lesson in how to speak in Pip ‘n’ Jane English. So that, no matter how antediluvian the vocabulary of the Bakers may be, there will be no times in our relationship when an interpreter wouldn’t come amiss.

  1. Vivid adjective, descriptive noun

In Time and the Rani, the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) is a “meddling presence.” He’s in danger of joining an “abysmal parade.” Someone else has “puerile opinions”. So, to master Pin ‘n’ Jane English, always spice up any given noun with an extravagant adjective. This way we get monstrous experiments, obscene murders, diabolical schemes, devious traps, painful conclusions, interfering maniacs and so on.

Sometimes, they can form their own punchy sentence, like “A devastating force!” Or alternatively, combine a couple into one mega sentence, “Your past is littered with the mutilated results of your unethical experiments!” or my personal favourite “The bumbling fool’s ready made as a sacrificial lamb!”

(Or when Tetrap 2IC Urak (Richard Gauntlett) says, “The mistress has profound insight, but I think she is mistaken to rely on any of your worthless race!” P&J like chatty monsters. Remember when the Vervoids used to stand around talking about how great they were? “We are doing splendidly!” was their opening line! Surprisingly articulate for a walking aubergine.)

  1. Take a word from one sentence and feature it in the next sentence.

Looking to link lots of ideas in one exchange of dialogue? Try taking a word from one sentence and making a feature of it in the next! That won’t get annoying!

In Time and the Rani, there’s this memorable conversation:

DOCTOR: I can’t say I share the Rani’s taste in pets.

BEYUS: The Tetraps are nobody’s pets and you’d be wise not to forget it.

DOCTOR: This is what I’ll never forget.

It also helps punctuate Time Lord trash talk in TheMark of the Rani:

MASTER: I believe your modern expression is “snuff the candle”.

DOCTOR: “Snuff the candle”? You always did lack style.

MASTER: Style is hardly the prime characteristic of your new regeneration.

The Mark of the Rani, as far as I can tell, holds the current record for this little quirk,  with a mighty quadra-line exchange.

PERI: You haven’t a clue what’s going on.DOCTOR: Oh, I know what’s going on. We’re being manoeuvred off course.PERI: Manoeuvred off course? You mean it isn’t the Tardis malfunctioning again?

DOCTOR: Malfunctioning? Malfunctioning? Malfunctioning?!!!

  1. Forget, spare me and never mind

Want to dismiss some cockamamie idea? You’ve got a choice of “forget,” “spare me” or “never mind.”

“Spare me the lecture,” pleads Peri in The Mark of the Rani. “Spare me the dubious pragmatism,” demands Lord Ravensworth. “Forget playing the detective,” advises Doland. “Forget the questions,” suggests Mel in the same story.

Mel though tends to prefer to Never Mind things. And the list gets increasingly elaborate: “Never mind the guard!” she starts with but quickly moves on to “Never mind the Just So stories!” and “Never mind the Sydney Carton heroics!” I know, right? How often have you found yourself needing to use that zinger? There’s never a good Dickensian comeback when you need one.

  1. I’ve got a better word

“A little portentous, perhaps, Mel?” says the Doctor, as he briefly wonders whether to adorn his seventh persona in a cod Napoleon outfit, to which the Rani wearily replies, “pretentious is the word.”

A neat trick! Have one of your characters deliberately use the wrong word so you can have another character correct them. Like a helpful know-it-all.

DOCTOR: Beyus, why have you assisted?

BEYUS: Collaborated is the word that you are avoiding, Doctor.

After all, it gives you the chance to use multiple adjectives.

RAVENSWORTH: The violence has been horrendous.

PERI: Murderous would be more apt.

Careful not to tie yourself up in knots, though:

DOLAND: The experimental nature of our work entails some calculated risks.

DOCTOR: Calculated risks? Are you telling me that sad travesty is a statistical possibility?

MEL: The word should be “criminal”.

And if you get bored of saying “There’s a better word for it,” just hit the thesaurus.

RANI: The aggression is an unfortunate side effect.

MASTER: Unfortunate? Fortuitous would be a more apposite epithet.

(Man, that last line is classic P&J. It also works for rules 1 and 6. So versatile!)

  1. And that better word is “astute”

The astute among you will have noted how astute many things are in Pip ‘n’ Jane land.

The Doctor tells Peri she makes “an astute observation” and Mel that she asks “an astute question.” The Master thinks Sabalom Glitz is “very astute,” but Glitz thinks the Doctor is also “very astute”, as does the Valeyard. But murderous old Doland isn’t as impressed and says the Doctor’s not as astute as he thought.

It’s all very… astute, I suppose.

  1. Question? Rebuke!

Pip ‘n’ Jane ‘glish allows you to streamline your sentences into pithy little dismissals of someone else’s specious assertion. (“Specious assertion.” See how easily you too can become fluent in Pip ‘n’ Jane?).

For instance, in Time and the Rani, our crimson clad villainess (Kate O’Mara) is accused of hatred of the lizardy Lakertyans, to which she responds: “Hatred? Another fantasy!” Once you’ve clocked this one, you’ll spot it all over the fabulous Baker couple’s stories.

RANI: Cooperation? I want nothing to do with you.

DOCTOR: Destroyed? Let’s not be hasty.

RANI: Pride? I’m a scientist.

MASTER: Capricious? Turning mice into monsters.

DOCTOR: University? You remind me of someone.

DOCTOR: Triumph? There’s no cause for celebration.

Irritating? You bet.

  1. Smart people use big words because they’re smart.

The key to mastering Pip ‘n’ Jane? Verbosity. Essential if you want to stop people sounding like asinine cretins, appalling dunderheads or blundering imbeciles.

It’s all based on one simple idea: that if you’re a genius, and most Time Lords are, then you’d speak in a way which shows off your mighty intelligence. If the side effect is no one can understand you, that’s just the price you pay for being so galactically clever.

Time and the Rani is actually mild in this regard, but there are still plenty of examples:

RANI: Guilt by association. I warned you of the consequences of subversion!

RANI: Selective retribution will bring any dissidents to heel.

DOCTOR: Have to be a cosmic breakthrough for a neurochemist of her stature to come storming the barricades.

DOCTOR: Before I thought you were a psychopath without murderous intent. I withdraw the qualification.

It’s in the prolix sixth Doctor’s era that Pip ‘n’ Jane English finds its most elaborate expression.

DOCTOR: To be complete, the syllogism only requires its grim conclusion.

DOCTOR: Leave me to my static and solitary peregrinations.

DOCTOR: You’re letting arrogance blinker you, Professor. It may not be your intention, but you are in danger of joining an extensive roll of dishonour. Misguided scientists who claim the pursuit of truth as an excuse for immoral experiments.

His malevolent alter ego is no different:

VALEYARD: The cavalier manner in which the Doctor permitted his young companion to be destroyed militates against this charade of concern.

VALEYARD: But for the caprice of chance, the victim would have been your companion, Mel. Your culpability is beyond question.

VALEYARD: The mortality rate that attends your meddling is appalling… Can you nominate a single incident where your presence has stemmed the tide of disaster?

It reaches its inevitable apotheosis in this infamous example:

VALEYARD: You are elevating futility to a high art. There’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality!

So now you should have everything you need to write dialogue like P&J. But what about the plot, I hear you cry? Forget, spare me and never mind your concerns! Just add a lady scientist perverting the course of nature, a bevy of geniuses, plumes of deadly gases and Time Lords disguising themselves at every opportunity and you’ll be fine.

Fine? An inadequate assessment! As one Vervoid once said to another, you’ll be doing splendidly.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: The Doctor accuses Mel (who he thinks is the Rani) of being a “wretched woman.” But the subtitles say, “You washer woman!”

LINK TO Marco Polo: In the Bakers’ determination to teach the viewing children of the world a new and obscure words every episode, they hark back to the show’s original educational remit, which Marco Polo was completely into as well.

NEXT TIME: We make a pile of good things and bad things and meet Vincent and the Doctor.

 

 

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.

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.