All posts by johnnyspandrell

Afterwards, afterwords and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012)

Doctor Who - Series 7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brands, association and Time-Flight (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Doctor, Doctor Who and The Silurians (1970)

silurians

I don’t know if it says more about me or about this story that I’m going to spend this post talking about its title. Or maybe there just comes a time in every Doctor Who blog for the inevitable post about story titles.

Doctor Who story titles are contentious. Several early stories don’t have official titles, which gives us ample opportunity to argue about what to call them. Me, I like 100,000 BC (as the best of an inaccurate lot), The Daleks(because I just can’t come at two stories called The Mutants) and Inside the Spaceship(which avoids calling that story The Edge of Destruction, which would bug me only because its second episode is the nearly identical The Brink of Disaster. If there was a third episode, presumably it would have been called The Verge of Devastation. And so on, unto lexicological exhaustion).

Then there are stories like this one, which inconveniently buck the series’ norm. It seems that just because of just one dodgy title card, we’re doomed to have to call this story Doctor Who and the Silurians. To me, it’s so obviously a mistake that I prefer to retrofit it into consistency and just call it The Silurians. The level of pedantry which insists on calling it Doctor Who and the Silurians extends to people who want to include punctuation marks in The Invasionand respect the unusual-for-the-time capitalisation of ATTACK OF THE CYBERMEN. Even though most Doctor Who story titles are capitalised.

These days, we’re sticklers when naming multi-part stories rather than giving them overarching titles. Strict accuracy requires that we call that Series 3 finale Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lordseven though it’s deeply irritating to do so. Still, we should think ourselves lucky that it hasn’t been retconned into the classic series, lest we have to invent still more titles for those early nameless tales. The Edge of Destruction/The Brink of Disaster might be just about acceptable, although needlessly repetitive, but can you imagine The Daleks’ Master Plan? Pedants would insist on Invasion/Invasion of the Dinosaurs. (And by “pedants,” I mean me.)

I tend to lean towards DWM archivist Andrew Pixley’s point of view, expressed in an article once where he basically said, “Call ‘em what you like. We all know which story you’re talking about.” The more salient point is that The Silurians and its awkward title reminded me that some people like to call our lead character “the Doctor” and some like to call him “Doctor Who”. And both sides often vehemently claim that the other’s wrong.

How did this start? In the 1980s, that very earnest time to be a fan, there seem to emerge a sort of mantra about this. “The character’s name is the Doctor. Doctor Who is the title of the programme.” See? I even remember it off by heart. It was reflective of a kind of strict adherence to accuracy because the TV series never referred to the character as Doctor Who. Except for the time when it did. And when the film did. And all the times the character had been credited as such. Which were many.

So there was a kind of party line which said that, on the weight of evidence, he was called the Doctor, not Doctor Who. And that fannish insistence then came to be seen as a hallmark of obsessiveness. It was the sort of thing an Anorak might say. And it came from a place of isolation, of cutting oneself off from the rest of the world where most laymen, from the press to the TV announcers to any not-we you happened to meet, called the character Doctor Who. Insisting on calling him the Doctor was a kind of stubborn ignoring of public opinion.

Lately though, there’s been a resurgence in people wanting to call our lead character Doctor Who. It’s, in part, a deliberate swipe at the obsessiveness of fans and their insistence on clinging to an imaginary “fact”. It’s also a reaction to fans who say things like, “the character’s name is the Doctor,” which marks themselves out as fans and separates them from the majority of casual viewers. It’s a bit cooler, these days, to refer to Doctor Who. And it also has the added benefit of riling those more earnest fans. It’s a call to not take the show so seriously.

(Doctor Who is probably just more efficient anyway. “Jodie Whittaker is the new Doctor Who,” is a sentence that tells you everything you need to know.Jodie Whittaker will play the Doctor in the next series of Doctor Who” doesn’t have the same punch. “The Doctor” is a term that always has to be put in context. “Doctor Who” explains itself.)

This divide between the Doctor fans and the Doctor Who fans gets commented on in World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (to use its full title, and to note that it’s not called World Enough and Time/Doctor Who Falls). In it, Missy is role playing the Doctor and introduces herself as Doctor Who. When Bill asks her why, she says because it’s his real name, and there’s some cockamamie story to go with it. But the crucial bit comes when the Doctor says, “Bill, she’s just trying to wind you up.”

Writer Steven Moffat has decided to play it all out in front of our eyes, complete with some advice to the Doctor fans to calm the Foamasi down. He loves to quietly reference the funny little things which divide us as fans. It’s amazing he didn’t get round to what the rules are to qualify as a companion and whether those Morbius faces were earlier incarnations the Doctor. Or Doctor Who.

None of this offers anything of note about The Silurians. I apologise Silurian aficionados! Um, CSO, Peter Miles, lots of caves, remarkable efforts to extend the plot…

But it might be some recompense to make this observation: that if you’re the sort of person who’s going to sit through a 7 episode morality play, with fuzzy picture quality, variable colour, music played by kazoo and monsters with muppety voices who do everything by waggling their head and flashing their head light…. And then read a blog post about it… you’re probably the sort of person who thinks about the difference between the Doctor and Doctor Who. Well, that’s what I’m banking on anyway.

LINK TO Fear Her: In both, Doctor Who faces trouble with drawings on walls.

NEXT TIME: Doctor Who goes supersonic in Time-Flight.

Domesticity, sentimentality and Fear Her (2006)

fearher

One of the earliest things we learned about the Doctor upon his 21st century return was that he “doesn’t do domestic.” But oddly enough, by the time he got to his second series, he was breaking his own rule fairly regularly. In both The Idiot’s Lantern and Fear Her, we find him and Rose (David Tennant and Billie Piper, at their most smug and loved up) making home visits and confronting the results of family violence.

When talking about The Idiot’s Lantern, I was concerned that this is too raw subject matter for the show to deal with. Fear Her goes there again, but this time uses it as the thematic base of the story. By which I mean, The Idiot’s Lantern featured a family fractured by an abusive father, but that plot element was not connected to its main plot about a monster sucking people into TVs.

Fear Her features a similarly fractured family and a child dealing with the aftermath of abuse from her father. But here, the plot about the alien Isolus, isolated from its own kind, scared of being alone, recovering from a traumatic event and needing love to heal itself, mirrors the situation of its host, Chloe (Abisola Agbaje).

Tales of spooky children abound in 21st century Who and in sci-fi and horror more generally. But this story is clearly riffing off Chocky, the terrifically unsettling novella by John Wyndham, turned into an equally unsettling TV series by 70s Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read. In both of those, a young boy, Matthew, has his mind infiltrated by an alien intelligence, wanting to form an emotional link. (Interestingly, in the TV version, the boy’s artistic abilities massively improve, and drawing becomes his means of self expression). As in Fear Her, the boy’s parents are worried and bewildered.

In Chocky, the threat to Matthew is external; government forces want to capture and harness the alien within him. The threat to Chloe is created from within her – a simulacrum of her vengeful Dad, hiding in the closet within her bedroom. Much of Fear Her is set in that bedroom, and that’s significant because bedrooms are places of sanctuary and safety, where imagined worlds are created. That’s the Isolus’s power too. It creates worlds to retreat into and play, but Chloe’s world is full of fear and guilt and that’s what creates her monster, which starts off as purely internalised but threatens to emerge into the real world.

As twee as it may seem, the ending where mother and daughter sing Kookaburra sits in the Old Gum Tree to neutralise the emerging father demon works within the theme of families recovering from trauma. The solution to Chloe’s problem is for Mum Trish (Nina Sosanya) to acknowledge and engage with her daughter’s pain. As with the Isolus, Chloe’s reunited with her family. Doctor Who fans don’t always like it when the series wades into the waters of family drama. But at least in Fear Her, plot, theme, genre and character sync satisfyingly together.

Just how, though, do the Olympics fit into this? I fear the answer is, not well. This is a story which could easily have been set in 2006 rather than 2012 and if there’s a thematic link between the Olympics and Chloe’s story, it’s pretty thin. There’s a half-hearted attempt in Trish’s dialogue to link it the theme of togetherness, when she says to Chloe, “tonight they’ll light the Olympic Flame in the stadium, and the whole world will be looking at our city. I mean, doesn’t that make you feel part of something?” But other than that, it seems an arbitrary creative choice.

The Olympics bring two unwelcome elements to proceedings; sentimentality and a lack of believability. The lack of believability is inherent. Setting any story in the near future means the audience is immediately doubting its accuracy because we know that everything about the setting is guessed at. But setting it during a future Olympics is even riskier, because they are events with which viewers are familiar.

We know these are enormous, carefully stage managed, yet disruptive events. We know they command massive crowds, not modest gaggles of streetside onlookers. We know the day of the opening ceremony isn’t spent fixing potholes in suburban cul de sacs. We know random strangers aren’t allowed to pick up the Olympic torch, let alone light the Olympic cauldron. All these missteps make Fear Her’s best future guesses look a little naive.

Then there’s the sentimentality, an element the show indulges in only occasionally, usually for anniversaries, regenerations and Christmas specials. The lighting of the Olympic torch is one of those big, showcase moments that Russell T Davies’s version of the show majored in. But it’s also cloyingly saccharine. The aforementioned Kookaburra song moment might work in terms of the plot, but that too is a little more schmaltzy than the series normally goes for. And everyone lives, again.

But I suspect that for a mainstream , non production code memorising section of the audience, this isn’t so much of a problem. On the commentary, for instance, Exec Producer Julie Gardner talks about how moving she found this episode. And as a parent, I find it difficult not to empathise with a story about wanting to help a troubled child, but being afraid and powerless to do so.

But some stories’ reputations are hard to ignore and Fear Her is, as polls go, this century’s The Twin Dilemma. Why it’s so disliked, I’m not sure, but having just come from The Web of Fear, which placed robot yeti in the London Underground in a strange mix of action adventure and mythic mysticism, I’m reminded that although juxtaposition is what Doctor Who does, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Fear Her is just as unlikely combination of elements as those that make up Web, and is in many ways a more sophisticated story. But perhaps they don’t coalesce quite as well to tell a story that compels and thrills in the way we expect the series to.

The other thing is, of course, its concentration on a story sticking close to home, with parents and children and bedrooms and living rooms and so on. There’s been plenty of these stories since 2005, but none of them bother the top levels of the “best of” polls much. Seems like we’re with the Doctor on this one; we don’t like it when he does domestic.

LINK TO The Web of Fear: Juxtaposition. Possession. Plus they both have “fear” in their titles!

NEXT TIME: Reptilian. Biped. A completely alien species! Report forthwith to a date with Doctor Who and The Silurians.

Teasing, traumatising and The Web of Fear (1968)

webfear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exits, Isms and Empress of Mars (2017)

empress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stjohn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

Yup, times have really changed.

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

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