All posts by johnnyspandrell

Moderates, radicals and Demons of the Punjab (2018)

punjab

One of the surprises brought to us by the thirteenth Doctor, as played with brains and brio by Jodie Whittaker, is that she’s less interventionist than we’ve grown to expect the Doctor to be. Often her first season has shown us circumstances where she has let events take their course, or let bad guys off the hook or otherwise not directly confronted the evils of the universe she comes across.

For instance, in Rosashe has to stand back and allow humanity’s racism to take the slow path to partial improvement. In Kerblam!, she chooses not to overthrow an exploitative corporate behemoth. In Arachnids in the UK, the spider shooter and Trump wannabe escapes unsanctioned. And in Demons of the Punjab, we are presented with a uniquely odd situation: a story in which the Doctor and her friends arrive, discover two problems: one which turns out to not be a problem at all and one which turns out to a problem they can’t solve. Then they leave.

How important is it that the Doctor is an active presence in any given story? Traditional wisdom says that as she’s the hero of the show, she should play a central, proactive role. I think that’s basically right, but as it’s the traditional wisdom, I always like to question it.

Certainly, there are instances in the past where the Doctor hasn’t been central to her own adventures. Many of the 1960s historicals saw the Doctor and his (with apologies for switching pronouns) companions swept up in events but playing no significant role in them. Stories as diverse as The Caves of Androzani and Twice upon a Time have experimented with decreasing the Doctor’s involvement in stimulating and resolving the plot. The trouble at Warriors’ Gate was sorted out when the Doctor realised he was called upon to do nothing. That it was “the right sort of nothing” doesn’t change that.

So sure – a non-interventionist Doctor is the exception rather than the rule, but it’s not unheard of. And despite how it might appear from 21st century Who, not every Doctor’s modus operandi has been to forcefully intervene in the concerns of those around them. The fifth Doctor, for instance, often trod a softer path. The second could also approach problems obliquely, avoiding direct confrontation. So it’s not as if there’s no precedent for a Doctor who plays a less dominant role in the series.

Writer Vinay Patel talked about this in an interview for the The Doctor is In podcast. When talking about the Doctor’s proactivity, or lack thereof, he positioned it as a side product of the show’s new ensemble approach. With Team TARDIS around her, she’s not always going to be the one who takes the lead, so in her character’s DNA is a tendency to let people around her call the shots.

There’s an illustrative moment of this when the Doctor wants to leave after finding out the true nature of the alien Thijarians, but her three buddies convince her to stay. It’s not a loud moment, but it’s a quiet reinforcement that the Doctor’s less of a leading force than she used to be. Whether this is to the Doctor’s detriment – because it pushes her to be more passive than her predecessors – or whether it gives us a refreshing new take on this much-interpreted character is a matter of personal preference.

But while it’s not unheard of for the Doctor to be a tangential element in her own story, it is unusual for her to also face an alien threat which is equally unimportant to the plot. The demons of the title are Thijarians, who travel around paying respect to people who die alone. They’re kind of professional mourners. Thing is, they used to be professional assassins, and that sounds altogether more interesting.

If they had indeed come to India in 1948 to assassinate Prem (Shane Zaza) because he would, in an alternative future, become a global political hero (or villain), that would have given both them, and tellingly, the Doctor, an excuse to get involved in the story. Instead, the theme of helplessness against the course of history is encapsulated in that moment when Prem is shot, and the Thijarians stand witness and the Doctor and her friends simply walk away.

Prem is shot by a posse of India loyalists led by his own brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). Manish represents something new in Doctor Who villainy, as introduced in Whittaker’s first series: he’s the radicalised young man. His dogma has prompted him to isolate himself from his family and align himself with dangerous people and ideas. Ultimately, it leads him to murder. It’s a particularly 21st century concern, that young men led astray will resort to acts of violence in pursuit of their perverted world view. And it’s not just a one-off; in the next episode, young factory worker Charlie will seek to commit mass murder in an expression of his “activism”. There’s something similar in the journey of smouldering racist Krasko in Rosa, and the hatred of difference he learned while in prison.

Of these depictions of good young men gone bad, Demons of the Punjab’s feels the most timely, because it’s also about borders. There are lots of Doctor Who stories about the evils of colonialism, but few which explore the troubled geo-political decision making which often goes along with it. This story shows how those decisions to apply crudely drawn borders based on religious beliefs ignore the subtleties of residence, family and tradition. Viewers in the UK, the US and Australia (among other places) are living through these concerns about borders and who gets to live on either side of them, making this as relevant a topic as the threat of radicalised young men.

It’s touchingly done too, without being cloying. Manish’s betrayal of his family feels all too feasible – the kind of thing which happens to families when politics meets religion. Umbreen’s (Amita Suman and Leena Dhingra) decision to marry her husband straddling two lands is nicely symbolic, as is the shattered watch, reminding us that some moments are frozen in our memories forever.

It’s a smart story, well told. So much so that it only emphasises how little it needs both the Doctor and the Thijarians. And it proves typical of an intriguing but uneven series of Doctor Who; one which takes us to new, fascinating places with the potential for great drama, but which is tentative about putting the Doctor at the centre of them.

LINK TO The Girl in the Fireplace: Aliens stalking historical humans.

NEXT TIME: Put your mysterious face on, it’s time to track down The Space Pirates.

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Rose, Reinette and The Girl in the Fireplace (2006)

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You can tell a Steven Moffat script. The writing is full of clever ripostes and zingy one-liners, delivered at just the right moment, with just the right amount of sardonic wit. But my favourite line of dialogue from (the thankfully less grisly than it sounds) The Girl in the Fireplace is much simpler and more functional. It’s this:

ROSE: Why her?

That line comes in the middle of a standard mid-episode exposition scene, albeit in an episode with a more complex premise than most. The Doctor (David Tennant), Rose (Billie Piper) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) have discovered a spaceship in the far future, linked to a number of times and places in 18th century France. Present in each of these locations is Reinette, AKA Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles), at different stages in her life, and a cohort of clockwork androids are crossing from future to past to monitor her.

In this scene, our TARDIS crew and Reinette have cornered one of the robots and are interrogating it on what’s going on. They’ve found out that the robots have cannibalised the ship’s crew for parts (still 21st century Who’s most gruesome plot development) to repair the immobilised spaceship, and they want Reinette for a mysterious, but crucial, final component.

The pivotal question is why, out of all the people in history, do the robots want Reinette? The question must be asked, but think about Moffat’s choices about which character should give voice to it. He could give it to the Doctor, but he’s already carrying the bulk of this scene. He could choose Reinette and change the question to “why me?” It would be a perfectly understandable question for her character to ask.

Instead, he gives it to Rose. And in a moment which shows what a smart and subtle actor she is, Billie Piper manages to drench those two words with subtext. Yes, she wants to know what the robots find so fascinating about Reinette, but she’s really asking why this fascination has spread to the Doctor, whose romantic interest the girl in the fireplace has piqued. Why her, she’s asking, and not me?

*****

Moffat has said that this episode is “the one where Doctor Who gets a girlfriend”. Which cheerfully ignores the fact that he already has a girlfriend in Rose. But then the Doctor and Rose have never been what we might call “official”.

Truth is, Rose never knows where she stands with the Doctor. Yes, she’s snogged him but both times were under extraordinary sci-fi infused circumstances: once he drew a bundle of time energy out of her to save her life (via her lips) and the other time she was possessed by a notorious vamp (and not responsible for the actions of her lips). No commitment has been made by either party. Which is where the romantic insecurity sets in. Mickey teases her about it this episode when listing possible suitors for the Doctor in Sarah Jane Smith, Cleopatra and now, Madame De Pompadour.

None of which would matter if Rose felt secure in her relationship with the Doctor, but she’s always played it pretty casually too. She’s kept Mickey on the hook for long enough, keeping her options open. So she doesn’t really have cause to complain when the Doctor takes up with Reinette in record speed. But it obviously bugs her. It’s pretty clear throughout this episode that Rose is thinking, “what if he invites her to come with us? Or what if he decides to stay with her?”

Why the Doctor is suddenly so taken with Reinette is more difficult to work out. Sure, she’s a beautiful woman (probably) but the Doctor’s hung out with plenty of them before and never hooked up so quickly (that wild New Year’s Eve back in 1996 excepted). It’s tempting to think that he’s just so unused to romantic relationships that he’ll latch on to any girl who’s deigned to kiss him.

To be fair, Reinette is remarkably smart, capable and unafraid to take what she wants. He’s not just fascinated by her, but by the mystery of why this troop of ticking androids wants to plug her into their spaceship. (Here we see one of Moffat’s favourite plot lines beginning; a woman as an intriguing puzzle for the Doctor to solve.) Sure, Rose is the girl next door, but Reinette’s an enigma wrapped in a ball gown.

If the Doctor’s aware that he’s causing Rose consternation, he certainly doesn’t show it. Can he really be so blind to her feelings? Doesn’t he know that they’re quasi boyfriend and girlfriend? He’s clearly no stranger to romantic jealousy. Look at how snarkily he tells Louis (Ben Turner) that a lord of time trumps a king of France.

I think it’s more likely that with Rose’s determination to keep her options open with Mickey, the Doctor’s assumed that this whatever-it-is with her is not necessarily going to be monogamous. Sadly, we never got a serious suitor for Rose to find out whether he’d react in the same way (Captain Jack kinda made him jealous for a bit but I’m not really sure that counts. Given that he turns out to be turned on by just about everyone he meets).

It’s sometimes pointed out that the Tennant Doctor and Rose don’t treat other people very well, so ensconced are they in their bubble of love. But The Girl in the Fireplace shows that occasionally, they also don’t treat each other very well. It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the Doctor heads off to “dance” with Reinette mid-episode, with no thought as to how this might make Rose feel. Cheating on his girlfriend with his new girlfriend. The Doctor as a cad – that’s something genuinely new.

Rose and Reinette end up representing the two types of woman our 21st century Doctor, with his new interest in romance, will end up flirting with over the next few years. On one hand, you have the sassy girl next door types: Rose, Amy, Clara and Martha. On the other, you have mythic, powerful, uber women: Reinette, River Song, Tasha Lem, Queens Elizabeth and Nefertiti. Both are idealised feminine archetypes, though at opposite ends of a spectrum of hetero male fantasies. It would be interesting to see the Doctor fall for someone who sits more realistically between these two ideals.

*****

I have a favourite shot in The Girl in the Fireplace, to go along with my favourite line. It’s the final one where we at last find out why the clockwork robots are as fascinated in Reinette as the Doctor is. As it turns out, the answer to Rose’s question was there all the time, obscured by a particularly unfortunate piece of TARDIS parking.

Why her? Well, the ship is named after Madame De Pompadour. In using the very last moments of his story to put the last of its jigsaw puzzle pieces in place, Moffat underlines that the big events of our lives – who you fall in love with, who falls in love with you – depend to a large extent on coincidence and will always remain, at least in part, a mystery.

LINK TO The Woman Who Lived: Both titles refer to mysterious female guest stars.

NEXT TIME: Family history and time travel? Very tricky. Break out the shop bought cake for Demons of the Punjab.

Human beings, being human and The Woman Who Lived (2015)

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The Woman Who Lived. Which one’s that again?

It’s one of those episodes which is difficult to recall. Even more difficult to come to grips with, as it’s a gentle, mid-season character drama, more designed to push the season arc along than be a kick-ass episode on its own terms. Still, it’s beguiling… once you’ve remembered which one it is.

It’s another version of Boom Town, which sought to subvert Doctor Who’s norms by being an episode where two characters have a conversation instead of the usual hijinks like monsters invading earth or maniacal despots doing their thing. In fact, it’s an extended conversation which questions the moral tenets the Doctor holds dear, his modus operandi and the very point of him.

That extended conversation is between the Doctor (grizzled Peter Capaldi) and Me (ungrizzled Maisie Williams) about whether he should whisk her away from a life of medieval drudgery. He’s basically responsible for it because 800 years ago he inadvertently made her immortal while trying to save her life. She wants him to take her away from it all, but he’s reluctant to do so because he’s got a thing about immortal, deathless types travelling with each other (ironically, this is exactly what will eventually happen to Me in Hell Bent but, hey, that’s six whole episodes away!).

Churlish to say it, but it’s hard to take Maisie Williams seriously as an immortal, uber-competent heroine. She looks so young and slight. But I suppose that’s the point, right? The juxtaposition of youth and immortality is what makes Me such an interesting proposition. And even though she’s had hundreds of years to master every possible skill you might think of, it’s still odd to see her besting those big beefy men in hand to hand combat. Or even being a highway woman in the first place. The archetypical female highway robber masquerading as a man, may or may not be historically accurate, but it’s great fodder for a Doctor Who story. Even if Me’s overdubbed male voice does bring back unfortunate memories of that episode of Blackadder the Third. (You know the one I’m talking about and if not, here’s a linky link.)

Despite her many talents, Me is not infallible. One of the story’s weaknesses is her credulity; if she has evolved into a super competent uber-everything, why does she fall for lion man Leandro’s (Ariyon Bakare) story? Can someone that longlived really be so gullible? It takes the Doctor about five seconds to see through the leonine ruse. Perhaps being so intent on escaping Earth has blinded her to the fact that this beast may not have his beauty’s best interests in mind.

On one level The Woman Who Lived is a treatise about the Doctor’s taking responsibility for his own actions. It’s all very well to take a split second decision to save a young girl’s life just because you happened to turn up in a David Tennant episode. But what happens when the girl has to hang around in Earth’s history for, like, ever?

Writer Catherine Tregenna suggests that she’s going to lose the very humanity that spurred the Doctor to save her in the first place. The risk is that she becomes so desensitised to the plight of the human “mayflies” around her that she stops being human and becomes… something else. A woman who has mastered humanity’s every skill but can no longer connect with her fellow people. But the Doctor can’t, y’know, go back in time and let her die, so he’s rather stuck with it.

On another level, it’s saying that being human is indivisible from having connections with other humans. Me has detached herself from everyone around her. The awful experience of losing her children to the black plague has meant she’s promised herself to not get as emotionally attached to anyone again. She’s already prepared to kill her helpless old manservant Clayton (Struan Rodger, he of the uncanny ability to make anachronistic cocktails) in an attempt to leave Earth forever. When the climax of the episode arrives in a blur of scampering yokels and a big purple light in a sky, the revelation for Me is that she does actually care about the mayflies she’s had such disdain for.

But she’s forced into her not-very-well-thought-through plan because the Doctor won’t take her with him. His reasoning for not wanting to is pretty weak. He says, “it wouldn’t be good” and that immortals need ongoing contact with mayflies because with their short lifespans, they really know how to party, or something. It’s a point reinforced early on when Me points out that the Doctor really is an old man in this era when life expectancy is at 35. But still, it’s a pretty lame excuse. I mean, why not take her away and deposit her in an era where there’s wi-fi and indoor plumbing? That would be polite, at least.

How much responsibility should the Doctor take for his actions? Behind every story, there are probably consequences as long-lasting and as impactful as that explored in The Woman Who Lived, but only some explore them: The Ark, for one, and to a lesser extent, Bad Wolf. Turns out there’s a subgenre of Doctor Who stories where the consequences of the Doctor’s actions are questioned.

In those stories, the Doctor gets an opportunity to put things to rights. They’re in effect “second chance” stories. But not here. Here, the Doctor deliberately evades his chance of making things right again. In this episode, he decides to leave things as they are, even though it’s entirely within his power to put Me’s world back on track.

Except that he does help her rediscover her own latent humanity. (Which, y’know, she must be stoked about but I bet there’s still a bit of her which is longing for the wi-fi and the indoor plumbing.)

ICKY BIT: when talking about the other immortal he’s travelled with, Captain Jack Harkness, the Doctor tells me, “he’ll get round to you eventually”. Um, that’s a bit gross, isn’t it?

LINK TO The Web PlanetAnthropomorphised animals.

NEXT TIME: Have you met the French? We’re off to meet The Girl in the Fireplace.

Nature, corruption and The Web Planet (1965)

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There’s a moment in An Adventure in Space and Time which shows Heather Hartnell visiting the Doctor Who set in 1964. As she walks in she bumps into two Menoptra, sneaking out for a quick fag, or something. Just for a beat, she clocks the bizarreness of it all as the two butterfly creatures walk past. It’s a second or two of pure WTF.

That’s fitting because The Web Planet is a six episode exercise in WTF. It comes from a production team wanting to jolt its viewers out of the everyday. They recognised that even after just a year and a half, Doctor Who had fallen into a predictable pattern of tea-time adventure and it was time to try something really bizarre.

This bizarreness doesn’t end with creating a world full of giant ants, giant butterflies, giant millipedes or even a tossed salad of them all (as if that wouldn’t be enough). It stretches to production decisions which deliberately alienate the viewer, such as blurring the camera lens, having a soundtrack of experimental electronica and dialogue peppered with strange alien speech patterns. This is a story that wants you to see and hear Doctor Who in a new way. (Or it’s a story which wants to assault your eardrums while obscuring your view of what’s going on. Potato, potahto).

Its ramshackle production values, its sleepy pacing and its chirruping soundtrack make The Web Planet almost unwatchable to a modern audience. And yet by several measures, it has proven to be a phenomenally successful Doctor Who story. Made in the height of Dalekmania, it outrated the Daleks, averaging 12.5m viewers. Selected to be one of the first Doctor Who novels, its print version has been read by millions of people. It gets name-checked in modern Who and mentioned by Who luminaries like Peter Capaldi as one of their most potent memories of the show. It’s an enduring triumph of ideas over their plywood and poster paint execution.

It transcends all this because of its villain. It’s not a scheming human or a sly Sensorite. This is the Animus and it’s a malevolent force growing like cancer through the planet, poisoning its water, ravaging its landscape. It animates the otherwise docile creatures around it and turns them into killers. It’s strong enough to drag the TARDIS off course. It corrupts everything around it. There’s never been anything like it, before or since.

It gets a bit lost in the story’s ropey design work, but the Animus is a spider which has spread its web across the planet. This makes me think how this story came about. When thinking up a plot preposterous enough for Doctor Who, apparently writer Bill Strutton remembered a painful incident from his childhood, when he was bitten by a bull ant, at his home in Moonta, South Australia. Had young Strutton been bitten by one of Australia’s famously venomous spiders – a funnel-web or a redback – he would have died. You don’t mess with those mofos. Google images of a funnel-web’s web, and you’ll find an eerie looking whirlpool shaped web, leading to a dark centre and, well you can see what Strutton may have been thinking off.

Sadly, when we finally get to meet the Animus in this story’s final ep, it doesn’t look particularly spidery. It’s a dome half suspended from the ceiling, covered with tentacles of old vacuum cleaner hoses which spill out over the entire room. The actors do a good job of looking suitably horrified at it, but there’s no hiding that it’s afflicted by the same budgetary pressures which give us Zarbi which run into cameras and Operta with comical Rastafarian haircuts. The Doctor (William Hartnell) and Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) have to lie down and self-entangle themselves it in at one stage, signalling the brute’s limitations.

But wishing for a more technically sophisticated version of The Web Planet gets us nowhere (although if there was ever a candidate for an animated version of an existing story, here it is). And it neglects the elements which transcend its general tackiness. There’s that truly spooky cliffhanger to its fifth episode, with the Doctor and Vicki enveloped in web. But again, it’s the Animus which works, because of its creepy (crawly?) voice (Catherine Fleming). That calm, whispery cadence, like a sinister anaesthetist. (Funny how giant spiders in fiction are often female.)

If The Web Planet is “about” anything (and I’m not sure it is. It could be just so much sci-fi hokum), I think it’s about evil as a force of nature. Up until this point, Doctor Who’s monsters had backstories which explained how they got to be so wicked. Even the Daleks were originally survivors of war, twisted and transformed by xenophobia. The Animus has no backstory, short of just arriving one day to upend everything on Vortis. It just is. It’s just there. And it grows like a malignant tumour. There’s something both chilling and everyday about that.

Strutton was in a POW camp in WW2, so no doubt he saw the best and worst of human nature on display there. Perhaps the Animus is his stand-in for the Nazis, presiding over a microcosm of society, with the Zarbi as guards and the rest of this planet’s population as the oppressed prisoners. Unlike Terry Nation, who used the Daleks to question the basis of Nazism, Strutton’s not interested in how evil emerges. For him, it’s as natural as any other part of the world. But left unchecked, it will take over, like weeds strangling a garden.

Doctor Who never returned to The Web Planet, at least on TV. Despite it being the site of its greatest ratings success until 1974. As the Hartnell era ended, the show turned more and more to Earth-bound settings. Not just bases under siege and adventures with UNIT in the home counties; even alien planets had more humanoids and looked and felt more familiar than smeary, noisy Vortis. Never again would the series try to create such a completely alien world. Camera lenses remained undirtied. No more special “insect movement” choreography for the monsters. Return visits to Vortis were restricted first to TV Comic, and the books, audio dramas and give-a-show slide projectors, where the Zabi didn’t have legs like rugby players and Menoptra didn’t trip over their own wings.

It’s truly a world too broad and deep for the small screen. But that’s why it never gets forgotten. That’s why those Menoptra get a cameo with Heather Hartnell, why Margaret Slitheen’s afraid of venom grubs and why this shaky old runaround gained thousands of new fans when it aired on Twitch. We really can’t get enough WTF.

LINK TO The Underwater Menace: both shot at Riverside Studios. Can I get away with that?

NEXT TIME: Stand and deliver! We’re having quite the Knightmare in The Woman Who Lived.

Gerry, Geoffrey and The Underwater Menace (1967)

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Doctor Who production office, late 1966.

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

Imperious knock on the door.

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

GERRY: Call you back.

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

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

GERRY: I’m the Script Editor.

GEOFFREY: Good lord, you’re Mr Davies?

GERRY: It’s Davis, actually.

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

GERRY: Oh, yes, right…

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

GERRY: Well, it’s Doctor Who, and…

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

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

GEOFFREY: Mr Who Under the Sea!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GERRY: They could just take the lift.

GEOFFREY: What?

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

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

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

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

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

GEOFFREY: You are a fool! An idiot!

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

GEOFFREY: What’s wrong with that?

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

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

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

GEOFFREY: What do you mean, you little man?

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

GEOFFREY: Blast! Blast! Blast!

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

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

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

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

CLEANING LADY: Nothing. Nothing at all.

*****

One week later

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

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

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

GEOFFREY: I wrote six episodes of Ivanhoe!

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

GEOFFREY: Capitol! Excelsior!

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

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

GERRY: Um, sure. And change the title.

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

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

Geoffrey savours the moment.

GEOFFREY: Nothing in the world can stop me now!

CLEANING LADY: Good for you, ducks.

*****

LINK TO Cold War: Setting, the sea.

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

 

 

 

 

Questions, more questions and Cold War (2013)

 

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I have some questions about Cold War.

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

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

  1. Why not just make it an American sub?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Just how naked is Skaldak?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gore, gall and The Two Doctors (1985)

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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