All posts by johnnyspandrell

Pink, possessiveness and The Caretaker (2014)

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Look, we’d better talk about Danny Pink.

Danny, as played by Samuel Anderson, is a committed teacher, an emotionally damaged war veteran and lover of Clara (Jenna Coleman). We meet him over the course of Into the Dalek and Listen, as he and Clara engage in an awkward but ultimately successful courtship. But in The Caretaker he meets the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and everything changes. As it tends to.

The Doctor doesn’t like Danny; no surprises there. He’s never liked his companions’ boyfriends. But with Mickey and Rory, those tensions quickly subsided into grudging respect before developing into comfortable friendships. There’s little hope of that here. The Doctor is sneeringly dismissive of Danny, refusing to acknowledge that he’s a maths teacher, just because he was once a soldier (the irritating myth that the Doctor hates soldiers, again. Does he not remember his old friend Lethbridge-Stewart was a soldier turned maths teacher?). Danny can’t stand the Doctor’s automatic assumption of superiority, labelling him as an officer. The subtext is clear. They’re fighting over Clara’s affections.

So the two men in Clara’s life finally meet and they can’t stand each other. A level of rapprochement is achieved though when Danny helps defeat the robotic Skovox Blitzer. Still, Danny doesn’t appreciate Clara’s deception and he’s highly suspicious of what happens when she periodically absconds in the TARDIS for adventures. And it’s from this point that Danny’s behaviour shifts… in a way, which hit a bum note some of the show’s audience.

Mrs Spandrell summed it up. “He’s become quite controlling of her, hasn’t he?” she noted during a sideways glance at this episode. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before. Danny’s controlling, manipulative, creepy. He wants to dictate what Clara can and can’t do. Is this reading justified?

If it is, he shows us this side of himself in record time. It starts here in The Caretaker and is ended when he gets hit by that car in the opening scene of Dark Water. That leaves only three episodes in which to cement this reputation as a possessive control freak, and in two of those, he makes only fleeting appearances.

So how does he manage to make such a bad impression with such minimal screen time? Let’s look at what he actually does to gain this reputation.

Moment 1: In The Caretaker, Danny discovers the truth about Clara and the Doctor and is upset that she hasn’t told him about it. He and the Doctor have a row, but then their combined efforts deactivate the Blitzer. When it’s all done, he gives Clara an ultimatum:

DANNY: If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me, because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if that happens, yeah?

CLARA: Yeah, it’s a deal.

DANNY: No. It’s a promise.

CLARA: Okay. I promise.

DANNY: And if you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished.

Look, if Mrs Spandrell had been secretly moonlighting, even in a platonic sense, with some dashing adventurer, I think I’d have something to say about it too. But I think the problem here is the ultimatum; it seems like Danny’s way or the highway. And it sets up a threat – that Danny will leave her if he disobeys her – which clearly scares Clara.

What she doesn’t say here is, “Look, I’ll see whoever I like, thanks and if you can’t deal with that, too bad.” Whether that would be fair for her to say, I don’t know. But the absence of such a statement is part of the problem.

Moment 2: In Kill the Moon, the predicted boundary pushing happens and Clara returns to Earth distraught. It’s actually her who says it first:

CLARA: I’m done. It’s over. I’m finished with him, and I told him that. What is that face for? Why don’t you believe me?

DANNY: Because you’re still angry. You can never finish with anyone while they can still make you angry. Tell him when you’re calm, and then tell me.

So it’s Clara’s choice to leave. Or is it? Danny seems even handed here, but has he manipulated her, by predicting the Doctor’s behaviour and putting the seed of doubt in her mind?

Moments 3 & 4: In Mummy on the Orient Express, Danny is actually tempering Clara’s intentions.

CLARA: So, what are you saying? Just because he brought me somewhere cool, I shouldn’t dump him?

DANNY: Well, one, you can’t dump him because he’s not your boyfriend. And two, dumping him sounds a little scorched earth. You still basically get on. I think you should just enjoy your space train.

But then later in the episode, he rings her up, expecting her to have dumped him (“so is it done?” he asks). And at that point, Clara decides to lie to both Danny (by saying yes to that question) and the Doctor by saying:

CLARA: Danny. He’s fine with the idea of me and you knocking about. It was his idea that we stop but, he’s decided he doesn’t mind and neither do I.

She claims it was Danny’s idea but all indications are that it was her idea, although he did little to dissuade her. But the worrying thing is that she’s kept quiet about her decision to stay on board the TARDIS. She’s clearly at least concerned, and at worst, worried, about telling Danny. What would he do if she told him the truth?

Moment 5: In In the Forest of the Night, he notices a pile of unmarked homework in the TARDIS and realises she’s been on board.

DANNY: I just want to know the truth. I don’t care what it is. I just want to know it. Like Maebh said. Like the forest. Fear a little bit less, trust a bit more.

CLARA: Okay. Well…

DANNY: No, not now. Go home and do your marking. Think about it, then tell me. I saved you from a tiger today. I deserve at least that.

See, it’s interesting this. On one hand, Danny seems to have a valid gripe. He’s concerned about Clara’s safety while in the company of the Doctor and she keeps lying to him about it.

But if any of the blame for this situation is his, it’s never acknowledged. His lines often position him as a victim – I know what that’s like, I just want to know the truth – but then end with an instruction, tell him when you’re calm, think about it, then tell me. He’s reasonable and reassuring in one breath, but issuing orders in the next. And Clara always seems to be in the wrong.

It’s hard to pinpoint, but I think on balance, Danny Pink the controlling boyfriend is definitely there. It’s hinted at in the writing and gently reinforced by Anderson’s performance. Perhaps unintentionally in both instances. And although it might all be an unhappy accident, maybe instances of male characters trying to influence female characters who they can/can’t see and what they can/can’t do, should just be avoided.

LINK TO The Christmas Invasion. Both set in modern day London.

NEXT TIME: We’ve come (to) Full Circle.

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Hawks, doves and The Christmas Invasion (2005)

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The ghost of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart hangs around the final scenes of The Christmas Invasion. Back in 1970’s Spearhead from Space, he mentioned how humans had been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. “We’ve drawn attention to ourselves,” he said ominously, moustache twitching with deep portent.

David Tennant’s skinny, sassy Doctor has just seen off the slave trading Sycorax in the space of about 10 minutes, but still he’s cautious. He all but quotes his old friend. Though he’s got quite the gob, so he uses far more words to say it: “And the human race is drawing attention to itself. Every day you’re sending out probes and messages and signals. This planet’s so noisy. You’re getting noticed more and more.”

His words spook Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton). It’s been a bad day at the office. She’s just been through an alien invasion she was powerless to stop, she’s seen two men die in front of her and had the fate of half the world rest on her ability to negotiate her way out of an impossible situation.  She’s been in charge when the Doctor didn’t show up, and it’s terrified her.

So she takes a decision to blow up the alien threat rather than let them escape. In doing so, she’s channeling he Brigadier. He took the same pragmatic choice when he blew up the Silurians, again in 1970, in a desperate attempt to end a story which had already gone on for seven episodes. The difference then was we never got to see the Doctor confront his military friend about his act of murder, masquerading as defence.

Here, the Doctor forces Harriet to justify her choice. This she does, with hawkish pragmatism. “You said yourself, Doctor, they’d go back to the stars and tell others about the Earth. I’m sorry, Doctor, but you’re not here all the time… They died right in front of me while you were sleeping. In which case we have to defend ourselves.” The Doctor is, of course, disgusted. “But that’s murder,” he said in 1970 and so he repeats, “that was murder” in 2005. Apart from that, he doesn’t bother to try to counter her arguments. He just starts tossing around threats.

More of that later. But first, it’s interesting that writer Russell T Davies is specifically referencing those two stories from 1970 (three, if we note that trouble with aliens abducting a British space craft was core to The Ambassadors of Death). He even goes to the extent of quoting them, almost word for word. He’s reminding us of the time when the Doctor had an uncomfortable relationship with his Earthbound allies. And also of a time when a new Doctor made a barnstorming entrance, signalling a major shift in the tone and focus of the series. David Tennant’s Doctor signals as significant a progression for the series as Pertwee, colour and exile to Earth did.

Tennant’s Doctor is different to Pertwee’s though, in that he’s unafraid to meter out punishment if you cross him. When the Sycorax leader goes back on his word to leave Earth, and instead redoubles his attack, the Doctor has no hesitation in triggering the trap door which sends the bad guy plummeting to the ground. “No second chances,” he says grimly. That goes for Harriet too.

As his argument with her escalates, he warns her of the consequences of messing with him. And when she shows no remorse, he decides to bring down her government by whispering six words in the ear of right hand man, Alex (Adam Garcia, formerly a red hot tap dancer back in Australia. Mrs Spandrell was very keen on him.) It’s a handy trick. I wish he would fall to Earth now and perform that same feat in the USA.

Anyway, the point is that this Doctor is not a man to cross.In some ways, that rift with Harriet marks the tenth Doctor out as political; he’s against pre-emptive military action. Or maybe it’s simpler than that – he just against the sneaky tactics of clobbering someone from behind.

Either way, he’s unafraid to lose friends when he thinks they’ve done the wrong thing. Later he watches Harriet on TV, flustered by questions about her health, engulfed in the PR storm he’s just conjured up with a six word magic spell. He stands there in his new glasses and paper Christmas hat and watches his former friend’s world collapse around her, and he’s unmoved.

This will of steel is something he has in common with his predecessor, who watched dispassionately as Cassandra burst apart and who dumped failed companion Adam back to Earth with window in his forehead. But then unlike the ninth Doctor, he does domestic. He has Christmas dinner with Jackie (Camille Coduri) and Mickey (Noel Clarke), something the last him flatly refused to do. Indeed his whole attitude to Jackie and Mickey has softened. He physically embraces them – again something he previously wouldn’t have had a bar of. So although he’s just as uncompromising as Dr 9, he’s a far more accessible and relaxed with his human buddies.

There’s one last moment that underlines Doctor Tennant’s refusal to let his human compadres take the easy way out. At the story’s end, when he goes to grab Rose’s hand to run off together for further adventures, she shies away a little because it means holding the hand he recently grew back. “That hand still gives me the creeps,” she says. But he doesn’t offer her the other one. He insists she takes the one that freaks her out. It’s a tiny little moment, but it just reinforces that this Doctor doesn’t let you off easy.

One last thing to note. This is the story which starts to develop Mickey and Jackie as characters, beyond being handbrakes on Rose’s TARDIS adventuring. Mickey gets his first heroic moment when he outmanoeuvres the robot Santas and Jackie plays both caring matriarch and comic relief (I particularly love her reminding Mickey to note down how much internet he uses, even though only moments ago they were nearly killed by a rampaging Christmas tree). They are, at last, the Doctor’s allies, Earth-bound but ready to help out when needed. Pertwee had his UNIT family. Tennant has the Tyler family. The Brigadier would be pleased.

LINK TO The Power of Kroll: both were originally broadcast on/around Christmas time.

NEXT TIME… The walls need sponging and there’s a sinister puddle. We’ll take care of it and The Caretaker too.

 

Skin, swamps and The Power of Kroll (1978/9)

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Well, after we finish filming they get us in the coach and we go to RAF Bentwaters which is about 10 miles down the road. And we go in… That’s an American Air Force base. We go into the gym and there’s all these 6’ 10” negroes all playing basketball, saying, “Hey man! You must come from Mars! Wow! One black bloke said, “Now you know what I feel like.” Unnamed Swampie actor, talking about how he and his fellow actors washed off their green body paint. (Variations segment on the making of The Power of Kroll, TX 15 December 1978.)

In one of those odd pairings that comes from watching Who in random order. We go from The Mysterious Planet to The Power of Kroll, making our LINK between the two nice and easy: they’re both by veteran writer Robert Holmes. But also, they both feature “primitive” Indigenous cultures at threat. In The Mysterious Planet, it’s the Tribe of the Free – humans in the far future who have been released from their hermetic survival chamber to eke out life in the wilderness. In The Power of Kroll, it’s the Swampies, scantily clad, green skinned humanoids, living in the swamps of a far distant moon.

Both show us what Holmes thought were the key ingredients for sci-fi depictions of Indigenous races. They live in huts, worship heathen gods and perform ritual sacrifice. They are aggrieved by their treatment and want to wage war on their enemies. They are on the verge of rebelling against their oppressors – both eagerly await guns which will allow them to attack the opposing side – though they lack the skill and strategy to win through. (And oddly enough, both have wildly miscast actors as their leaders. Carry On’s Joan Sims as a space age Boudicca? Dignified, straight laced John Abineri stripped to his underwear and painted green?)

The Tribe members of the Free are just colour-by-numbers standard Doctor Who primitives, but the Swampies are far more worrying. On first glance, they seem to be stand-ins for native Americans. But the set dressing around their camp seems to have a Polynesian influence. On top of all that, when chief bad guy Thawn (Neil MacCarthy) talks about them, his sneering hatred seems to be a critique of the treatment of Africans under South Africa’s apartheid (“Not you!” he growls at a Swampie butler who tries to follow him into a room, and he laughs when the Doctor tries to include said Swampie in a head count of personnel). But then, he accuses one of his crew of being a “Swampie-lover” which sounds like it’s referring to race relations in the USA’s Confederate South.

So in the first instance, it’s irritating that multiple, diverse cultures are conflated to produce a generic Indigenous species… like anyone who’s not white is more or less the same. And there’s also something slightly icky about the decision to paint all the Swampies green, from toe to matted bewigged head. By 1978, it’s clearly too offensive to brown or black all the tribesmen up. But is greening them up any better? Green or brown, aren’t they both just symbols for “not white”?

To me, painting them all green is not all that different to blacking up. The significant thing is that they’re not white and there’s no good reason to make the ruling class white and give the oppressed natives coloured skin. Surely it’s not that hard to imagine a version of The Power of Kroll where the Swampies are loin clothed, but white (a la the Sevateem of The Face of Evil). Or even a version where the refinery staff are green skinned aliens and the Swampies are white (or is that too redolent of The Savages?) Or better still, where the refinery staff and the Swampies are played by actors of all skin tones, representative of the diversity of our communities. (Blimey, you might even make one of them… a woman).

Doctor Who’s heart is nearly always in the right place though. Kroll, like that other 70s take on colonialism, The Mutants, might be a bit iffy in its details but in broad terms is rightly critical of racism. It’s clear enough in its characterisation of bad guy Thawn, who makes no attempt to hide his prejudice towards the Swampies (as per the Marshal from The Mutants). He openly admits to the Doctor (a rangy Tom Baker) that his plan is to use the Swampies’ arming themselves as an excuse to wipe them out. He lays out that plan in Part One, so there’s no secret about it. (What he does conceal is that he’s behind the arms dealing in the first place.) Throughout he’s presented as unadulterated bad guy, ranting, unhinged and unapologetically racist – even his co-workers look at him with the sideward glances of those counting the exits. So Thawn and the racism he represents is clearly condemned, and he gets his just deserts when he’s skewered by a Swampie spear.

But that American serviceman’s comment – “Now you know what I feel like” – sticks in my mind. And here’s another interesting quote from 1978, when politician Margaret Thatcher said on a TV news program that, “people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” Swamped. Maybe Robert Holmes was watching. Maybe out chatty American friend was.

Or maybe they’d watched The Goodies’ episode South Africa – featuring Kroll’s Phillip Madoc as a ranting racist – a few years back. Or maybe they were watching repeats of Love Thy Neighbour or Till Death do us Part. Or maybe they caught the final episodes of The Black and White Minstrel Show, which ended in 1978. Whatever, it’s fair enough to say that television in the UK in the 70s was questioning and critiquing race relations with gusto, sometimes sensitively, often not. And The Power of Kroll is a vivid part of that.

Also, there’s a big squid in it.

NEXT TIME… There you go, big fella! A new Doctor and a new festive tradition in The Christmas Invasion.

Mavericks, manouvering and The Mysterious Planet (1986)

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At the start of Doctor Who’s 23rd season, the show called up its most reliable writer to provide a series opener. As the show had only narrowly avoided cancellation the year before, it needed Robert Holmes to apply a reinvigorating shot in the arm, as he’d done before with Spearhead from Space and The Ark in (also) Space. But the story Holmes provided, The Mysterious Planet, proved to be, in the opinion of most fans, one of his lesser works.

Still, it’s a favourite of mine. Sure, it lacks the high stakes tension of The Caves of Androzani or the laser sharp focus of The Deadly Assassin. But it’s got a bitingly funny script and a world of intrigue to ponder over. In a standard Doctor Who year, this oddly charming tale, minus its trial room trappings, would have been a cheeky mid-season treat, a la Carnival of Monsters or The Sun Makers.

It’s got its problems, of course. Any prosecutor worth their salt would point out that the direction is flat, only occasionally mustering up any energy and never concocting any real suspense. Its design work is uneven, its performances a mixed bunch. But, its defence counsel might counter, it has one of Holmes’ wittiest scripts, with much quotable dialogue and plenty of engaging characters. Plus it reengages Holmes with many of his favourite tropes.

Like The Ark in Space, it wonders how humans will survive a future global apocalypse. Like The Sun Makers, it imagines a subterranean world where humans live, frightened of going onto the surface. Like The Krotons it gives us a present but unseen menace holding a society hostage and kidnapping their smartest youths. And it provides a new version of Holmes’ favourite supporting character, the colourful maverick.

It’s a trope with starts with Milo Clancey, runs through Vorg and Garron and ends here with Sabalom Glitz (Tony Selby). All are miscreant versions of the Doctor. They have his charm, his eccentricity and his colourful turn of phrase. But each come from a seedier place than the Doctor, who in case we forget, is a Lord. Clancey is wild frontierman, Vorg is a carnie and Garron’s a galactic con-man. Occupations the Doctor’s altogether too wholesome and scholarly to consider.

Glitz is something quite different from those previous oddballs. He’s been characterised as a dodgy dealer; as Selby puts it on the DVD documentary, an “Arthur Daley in space”. But this slant on Glitz comes more from his two subsequent stories than this introductory tale. Here, he’s articulate and witty. Sardonic even. He’s a mercenary, not the used car salesman he becomes. And although he might become a cuddly geezer slash ally to the Doctor later on, in this story, he’s a ruthless criminal.

His first act on screen is an aborted attempt to murder the Doctor (Colin Baker) and Peri (Nicola Bryant). He’d cheerfully shoot his way out of the Tribe of the Free’s camp if he could. Most chillingly, he wants to gas Marb Station in order to kill its inhabitants. Just because he’s given a few funny lines doesn’t change that.

In fact, I’d wager that it’s the casting of Selby which led the character down the Arthur Daley in space path, not the other way around. With lines like, “I should like to stand in paterfamilias for your absent father and give you away, my dear, but I always cry at these moments of deep sentiment.” and “whereas yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex.” it’s not hard to imagine a different take on the character. Think, for instance, of Holmes’ Time Lord messenger in Terror of the Autons as Glitz, all bowler hat and establishment suit. Or an ice-cold businessman like Trau Morgus. Either would be valid takes on Glitz as scripted here. But the wide boy version sticks and by the time he gets to Dragonfire he’s been completely Daley-fied, an altogether less cultured, less witty piece of work.

His unscrupulousness remains constant though, and it’s that which sets him apart from the crusading sixth Doctor. After a season and a bit of being spiky and boorish, we finally get a version of this Doctor we can truly root for; compassionate, heroic and funny. I suspect that Holmes rather liked writing for the sixth Doctor. It’s an incarnation that seems closest to his conception of the Doctor – a slightly superior but affable character, but with an acid tongue. Baker embraces the chance to play the Doctor with this lighter aspect to him, looking for every opportunity to go for the physical gag or the emphasized word. He’s a vibrant, showman of a Doctor but one who cares about this planet, its people and crucially, his companion. His scenes in Part One where he tries to console Peri, distraught about the fate of her world, are the best of his era.

Despite this change towards a more accessible, likeable Doctor though, there’s still a fundamentally problematic approach to his character. He’s basically ineffectual when it comes to solving the story’s big problem. This isn’t uncommon in 1980s Who; look at the climaxes to Earthshock, Terminus, Resurrection of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos for other examples where the Doctor’s efforts in winning the day are minimal. But here his impotence is underlined twice.

It happens first when the Doctor is in an argument with robotic underground despot Drathro (Roger Brierly). The Doctor is trying to convince Drathro that human life is of more value than that of machines. But Drathro is shown to outmanoeuvre the Doctor’s arguments every time. In the end, in very characteristic style for his sixth incarnation, the Doctor resorts to abuse, accusing the robot of hubris. These are actually a great couple of scenes, highlighting the Doctor’s love of life and humanity. But still, he loses that argument and that diminishes his strength as a character.

The second instance comes at the story’s conclusion. The black light system, upon which Drathro depends, is about to explode and the horned metal beast has decided that everyone should perish with him. The Doctor’s powerless to stop it, so it’s left to Glitz, our cold blooded criminal, to comes up with the solution. He tricks Drathro into leaving his castle, with promises of more black light on his ship. “Strange how low cunning succeeds where intelligent reasoning fails,” sighs the Doctor. Not just strange, Doc, but sad. Because it leaves you trying to contain the inevitable end-of-story explosion and doing little else. The colourful maverick saves the day, and our colourful hero is sidelined.

That’s ultimately why this story wasn’t enough to propel the series to new heights. Not because it isn’t clever or funny or interesting; it’s all those things. (We haven’t even got to Holmes’ use of the trial scenes to annotate the show’s narrative structure). But because even though it gives us a more likeable hero, it’s still undermining him throughout.

LINK TO Partners in Crime: Both are set in London, although separated by millions of years.

NEXT TIME: Will there be strawberry jam for tea? More from Holmes in The Power of Kroll. Kroll! Kroll! Kroll!

 

Words, pictures and Partners in Crime (2008)

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I found myself listening to the DVD commentary track on Partners in Crime. It features Execs Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner plus director James Strong and they make for jolly company. Davies is in ebullient form, gushing over various aspects of the production, explaining his creative choices with confidence and generally laughing at the sheer unlikeliness of it all. Gardner is equally fulsome, quick to address the episode’s technical faults but still clearly loving it none the less. Strong is a more reserved, but wry and happy to be the butt of good-hearted barbs about any directorial shortcomings.

Funnily enough, I’d also listened to the commentary track on the recently randomed Journey’s End. That one’s even more uproarious and features Davies, David Tennant and Catherine Tate. They keep it together well enough, until Tate abandons talking about Doctor Who and reveals news about her new kitten. (The name? I wouldn’t spoil it for you, but it brings the house down). Laughs galore. Hooray. Marvellous.

I mention all this because of the aura it gives off – of a program created by people who love what they do, who get along famously, and who have a heartily good time making it. These DVD commentaries are texts of their own, they suggest a working environment for late RTD era Who of grand behind-the-scene bonhomie. It all sounds like immense fun.

*****

A book I return to time and time again is The Writer’s Tale, by Davies and DWM feature writer Benjamin Cook. It’s a magnificent blow by blow account of Davies making Doctor Who from 2007-2010. The book’s two authors correspond via email and Davies is incredibly candid about the pressures involved in making the show. And although his humour and mischievousness still shine through, a lot of the book shows the melancholy and loneliness of creating a TV show, the size, scope and expectations of which are bewildering. It contrasts strongly with the green room party feel of those commentary tracks.

(Oh, that book. It’s addictive. On occasion, I’ll decide to just dip into quickly to check something or other. Two hours later I’m still reading it. Anything else scheduled gets abandoned. Honestly, it should come with a warning.)

The book starts with the production of series 4, and so Partners in Crime is featured heavily. We get to trace it from conception through the broadcast, and it’s one of those stories that went through many changes. It always featured a new companion, until Catherine Tate was wooed back. It was going to feature furry beasts called the Vorlax, before the squishy Adipose were conceived. It also featured Donna’s Dad played by Howard Attfield, right through to filming, until ill health forced him out and he was replaced by Bernard Cribbins as Wilf.

All this is recounted in The Writers’ Tale, including a number of production snafus which irritated Davies. When Penny (Verona Joseph) is found hiding in a toilet cubicle, she’s right next to the one in which Donna’s hiding, despite Davies’ specific instructions. When two of Miss Foster’s (Sarah Lancashire) guards are electrocuted, it’s through an archway, not a doorway as Davies conceived.

In the book, these niggles really get under Davies’ skin. But on the commentary track, they’re playfully brought up to needle at Strong. Clearly, time had soothed RTD’s crankiness by the time he’d got to record the commentary. But still we’re left with two contrasting views of the making of the series; one dominated by Davies’ jolly, gregarious public persona and one in The Writers’ Tale, which shows a private persona which is highly stressed, constantly working and constantly self-doubting. And not just on Partners in Crime,  but on all those stories up until The End of Time. The Writer’s Tale pulls back the curtain and shows how ridiculously hard it is to make Doctor Who, behind the cheerful facade of its makers.

I wonder if the Moff will put out a similar book when he leaves. What about one which was the collected emails between him and RTD? I bet that would be eye-opening. I’d have to write off a full month.

*****

The Writers’ Tale also reveals RTD to be a cartoonist of some considerable skill. The book is peppered with sketches illustrating scenes from scripts in development and used by Davies as a way of demonstrating his vision for the final product. This shows Davies as a writer who conceives his stories in images, a truly visual storyteller. This month, a new book Now We Are Six Hundred, is released, jam-packed with Davies’ cartoons.

And Partners in Crime has a cartoony style to it. The charmingly cute fat babies, the Adipose, are creations straight out of Pixar. The screwball style of the Warner Brothers cartoons is evident too; not just Miss Foster’s temporary levitation (complete with eyes bulging in surprise) before falling to her death, which as Davies says on the commentary is pure Wile E Coyote. But also the scene of the Doctor and Donna popping up from behind cubicles like meerkats, but always just missing each other. And Penny escaping tied to a chair.

Not to mention that when the Doctor and Donna give us the conversation behind two windows routine, it ends with Catherine Tate paused mid face pulling, like a frame taken from a Looney Toons classic.

There could have been more of it. Why not make these cartoon moments even more prominent? Have more cartoony set pieces? When the Doctor runs, his legs could rotate like crazed windmills. When knocked unconscious, stars and birds could circle around his head. Sounds too out there? I think as a madcap one off, it could be fun. Planet of the cartoons, Donna might say.

And if there was a ever a Doctor to pull it off, it’s surely Tennant, with his gangly limbs, big eyes and spiky hair, he comes ready to draw. I can already see anvils dropping on his head and pointy lumps growing from his skull. Or him temporarily suspended in mid-air, arms and legs outstretched in moments of surprise or anger. Eyeballs leaping out from his face. What’s up Doc, indeed.

T-t-t-that’s all, folks.

LINK TO The War Games: companions who will eventually have their memories of their time with the Doctor wiped.

NEXT TIME… is there any intelligent life here? We find out on The Mysterious Planet.

Epics, epilogue and The War Games (1969)

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Welcome to The War Games, Doctor Who’s longest story.

(I’ll just let that sit there and rankle for a bit.)

No, you say, what about The Trial of a Time Lord? Four separate narratives, I say.

All right, you say, but what about The Daleks’ Master Plan? You can’t deny that one! Well, I can in fact. As you’ll see if we ever get around to randoming it, I’d say Master Plan’s episodic format makes it feel like a series of mini-stories rather than one big one.

That leaves The War Games with the series’ longest contained narrative. And unlike those other contenders, it feels like one epic story, told over a record-breaking 9 episodes.

(I know, I’m being particularly annoying today.)

I say 9 episodes because that’s how long it takes to wrap up the main story. Episode Ten, is an epilogue and although it contains some bonus sneering and running around with the War Lord (Philip Madoc), it’s dealing with something else entirely. It’s a one episode story about the Doctor’s final come uppance with the Time Lords. And of course, it changes the show forever.

*****

The War Games has been mightily re-evaluated in recent years. It started with a glowing review of the DVD by Gary Gillatt in DWM. Even co-writer Terrance Dicks, who had for years proffered a line that the story began and ended well but flagged in the middle, was convinced. So its reputation has grown to the point where it’s now our favourite 60s story, according to DWM’s 50th anniversary poll.

For me, it’s too patchy to be consistently satisfying. Those early episodes set in faux World War One are terrific though. The design work is excellent, the characters are believable and well portrayed and director David Maloney brings out a pervading sense of menace. Then there’s the unsettling sight of our cozy TARDIS team of silly old Doctor (the Trought, on form), funny old Jamie (the Fraze) and fussy old Zoe (the, um, Pads) suddenly dropped into shocking danger, the threat of violent death all around them. All capped off with that brilliant cliffhanger to Episode Two, when time zones collide and Roman soldiers come charging out of nowhere at our friends.

(Quick aside: Terence Bayler plays Major Barrington, and his resemblance to Rowan Atkinson is remarkable. It made me wonder is The War Games may have been an influence on Blackadder Goes Forth. Sound a bit far fetched? Well, think about Barrington/Blackadder and Carstairs/George at the front, and Smythe/Melchett and Ransom/Darling back safe behind lines at the Chateau.)

But after those initial episodes, the action is shared between the earthly war zones and the bad guys’ HQ. Their base has some fetching op art on the walls but is otherwise so much plywood and vac formed plastic. Clearly, the budget has run out. Billowing plastic sheets replace walls. Characters hide from others behind the scantest of flats, and their pursuers must pretend not to see them. Walls are too expensive, black drapes must suffice. Spaceships are controlled by play magnets. It’s resourceful work when faced with limited dough, but it can’t help but look tacky.

The insubstantial-ness of the sets isn’t helped by the fairly basic melodrama played out within them. Mostly, it’s middle management sniping between the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) and the Security Chief (James Bree). Both resentful and suspicious of the other, it’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to sustain over multiple episodes. Brayshaw goes for fruity, beard stroking villainy, while Bree opts for the nasal voiced bitching of a career civil servant. Both keep threatening to take their slowly escalating dispute to their team leader. It feels like we’re watching the petty irritations of a pair of office co-workers, promoted beyond their competence. “What a stupid fool you are. You’ve jammed the photocopier again!” “Well, don’t think I didn’t see you stealing Sue from Accounts’ soy milk from the fridge. What a stupid fool you are!”

Dicks and co-writer Malcolm Hulke have over four hours to fill with material, but never get around to giving these “aliens” a name or a planet of origin. We have to assume then that it’s a deliberate move to keep them non-descript. Because they don’t have individual names either. They are either named after their occupations (War Lord, Security Chief and Scientist) or after the fictional characters they take on when in the time zones (General Smythe, Von Weich). In fact, the only thing which distinguishes them is their predisposition for eyewear, either the sinister pebble glasses type or the wacky sunvisor type.

So we switch regularly from the relatively realistic settings of historical wars to this b-grade world of flimsy sets, generically named people and unlikely spectacles. But it’s in the latter that we find the Doctor’s greatest secret hiding. Because the War Chief is not actually one of this colourless race. (You can tell by the way he’s wearing a hood ornament on a big chain around his neck). In fact, he’s a Time Lord, one of the Doctor’s kith. “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are,” he purrs, when the two finally get some time alone in Episode Eight. And so Dicks and Hulke set about dismantling the framework the show has been built on over the last six years.

*****

We know in hindsight that The War Games was designed to kick the show into a new format. But it feels like it could also have been the end of the show, if that’s what was required. It doesn’t feel definitive. It’s having a bet each way. That last shot of a decapitated Doctor spinning helplessly through to oblivion – quite disturbing, really – is basically saying, we don’t know if there’s a future for this show.

Patrick Troughton picks up on this uncertainty. He plays his Doctor not with the restless energy of an eternal runaway, but with the resignation of a fugitive who knows the game is up. It’s his companions who have to spur him on to try to evade his Time Lord judges. Throughout these ten episodes, Troughton never stops looking for the lighter moment amongst all the gloom. He never stops trying to energise a flagging moment. But still, he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time.

Episode Ten – that little recognised one parter – gives him some excellent material to work with though. In a scene destined for clip show after clip show, he rails against the inactivity of his fellow Time Lords. While some old monster costumes are wheeled out to wobble in front of black curtains, the Doctor stakes his claim. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought, not merely observed. There’s still a need for him to be a funny, brave, compassionate hero. It might be doubtful about the future, but this story is very clearly saying, there’s still a need for Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who DiedAliens disguised as earthly warriors.

NEXT TIME… The fat just walks away. We take on some Partners in Crime.

Underdogs, overlords and The Girl Who Died (2015)

girlwhodied

Of all the Doctors to star in a Doctor Who version of The Mighty Ducks, Peter Capaldi’s acerbic version seems one of the most unlikely. (Not the most unlikely, which would surely be Hartnell. “What, dear boy? I prefer walking to skating any day.”) Still, that’s what happens in The Girl Who Died, as he becomes responsible for training a group of hopeless Vikings for a fight against a group of relentless alien brutes, the Mire. It’s your classic underdog story, played pretty much for laughs, with Vikings too clumsy, too uncoordinated or too afraid of blood to be of any use.

The laughs can’t last for long though. The stakes are much higher than for a hockey match, football game or Jamaican bobsled team. If the Mire win, everyone in this village dies. The weight of that rests heavily on the Doctor’s shoulders.

This is a great episode for Capaldi, who gets to show that responsibility on every square inch of that deeply lined face. But he also gets to be funny and soulful. My favourite aspect is his ability to hear and translate the cries of a baby. P-Cap sells it. You really believe that he can speak baby and that his outlook on the fate of this ragtag bunch is changed irrevocably because of it.

On top of that, he gets to play out the Doctor’s grief and anger when his new friend Ashildr (Maisie Williams) is killed in battle, his furious determination to bring her back to life and the slow, hangover of a realisation that he may have sentenced this young girl to immortality. For a jokey script, it ends on a note of foreboding. In fact, it’s not miles away from the feel of Donald Cotton’s Hartnell stories, with historical settings full of gags which turn serious in the final reel.

But there’s something great about how the Doctor manages to beat the Mire. As Clara (Jenna Coleman) points out to him, teaching people to fight is not his style and she knows he’s not going to win until he comes up with a more Doctorly plan. This he eventually does, and as he says, it’s a doozy, complete with subterfuge, a dance, an elaborate pulley system, space YouTube and a tub of electric eels. Even by the Doctor’s standards, it’s mental. But he proves once again that the bullies and the warmongers can be overcome by using your brain. As essentially Doctor Who as that message is, it can never be said enough.

Then there’s Clara, who’s continuing on her journey to would-be Doctordom. She gets herself transported to the Mire’s spacecraft and straight into a conversation with Odin (David Schofield, who’s fine but oh, it woulda coulda shoulda been BRIAN BLESSED!) in which she very nearly manages to end the story 30 minutes early by scaring him off, with threats of advanced technology and half a pair of sonic sunglasses. And Coleman carries it brilliantly with exactly the sort poise that infuriates fans who hate her getting more screen time than the Doctor.

The other side of Clara shown here is her indispensability in getting the Doctor to win through. She is not so much his teacher, as shown in Into the Dalek, but a sort of motivational coach. When he’s ready to abandon the Vikings because they haven’t had the common sense to take his suggestion about fleeing, she gently questions him until he decides to save them – a decision she knows he’ll make, with some prodding from her. Later, when he’s despairing about the general rubbishness of his fighting force, she presses him to change tactics. She’s a prompt for his actions. Almost his manipulator.

It’s a co-dependent relationship. The Doctor needs Clara in order to function like a hero. Clara needs the Doctor to show her how to become a hero. It’s not exactly a cozy relationship, but between them, they are a functioning team, each making up for the other’s shortcomings. So it makes dramatic sense to throw in a third character to shake them up.

And so to Ashildr, the village’s storyteller and feisty teenage girl. Despite her young age, she’s a catalyst for the story’s big events. It’s her recklessness which leads to the Mire deciding to stay and fight and gives us the Mighty Ducks. It’s her puppetry hobby that inspires the Doctor’s wacky plan with the fake dragon. And it’s her imagination which feeds the illusion of the mighty beast into the Mire’s helmets. In many ways, it’s her story, not just because it’s named after her.

Both the Doctor and Clara are strangely drawn to her. The Doctor, as he explains, is haunted by a kind of future memory of her. Clara seems to have a crush on her (“Fight you for her,” she offers the Doctor at one stage). Both treat her as a potential protégé. In other circumstances, she might have been asked to board the TARDIS as a new companion.

Instead, she becomes the focus of the Doctor’s tempestuous grief, when she dies through a miscalculation in his plan. He breaks his own rules, lets her absorb some Mire technology, resurrects her and makes her immortal. But this tells us nothing new about the Doctor. That he’s a man of great power, that he’ll break his own rules when pushed, that he can take an ordinary person and turn them into a being of universal significance… all this we knew before The Girl Who Died.

But we didn’t know this vengeful god of a Doctor would turn up in the middle of what has been, up to that point, a jaunty historical comedy. After all, this is a story with Odin appearing in the sky straight from Monty Python and comic antics accompanied by the Benny Hill theme. It’s not where you expect to find a portentous immortal being created by an act of Doctorly rage.

That’s OK. This show’s frequently been about contrasting light and dark. And if it’s an uncomfortable mix in this episode, then The Time Meddler, Delta and the Bannermen and The Fires of Pompeii all have something to say about that. The only surprise is that a story-bending character like Ashildr, who will go on to be an ongoing force in the Doctor’s life, and who will eventually split our cozy couple apart, should emerge from such jolly hijinks as this.

Anyway, I best get on with my pitch to Big Finish. It’s called The Mighty Duxatrons. It stars David Bradley as the first Doctor. Emilio Estevez is going to co star. Underdogs as far as the eye can see.

LINK TO The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End: in flashback, we see the tenth Doctor and Donna again.

NEXT TIME: What a stupid fool you are! Let’s play The War Games.