All posts by johnnyspandrell

Motherhood, Christmas and The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe (2011).


Not long after The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe was broadcast, a friend said to me, “I’m so sick of Moffat’s obsession with motherhood. Last season was full off it.” I suppose she was referring to Amy Pond’s mystical pregnancy storyline. (Click here if you dare, by the way. )

I replied that for me, that season just past in fact seemed all about fatherhood, which was a theme in The Curse of the Black Spot, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, A Good Man Goes to War, Night Terrors and Closing Time. And of course the following year, we meet Rory’s father as well.

But my friend in her righteous indignation and me in my well, dullness, had missed a rather obvious point.

TDTWATW, as it now must be known in order to save me from RSI, is Doctor Who‘s seventh Christmas special (eighth if you count The Feast of Steven). By now, we’re used to the trappings of Christmas being repurposed for the series’ own peculiar purposes. But it’s fun to have a look at how they work here.

Whereas other Christmas episodes take hitherto festive elements and make them deadly (Santas, snowmen, angels and so forth), here writer Steven Moffat uses Christmas trimmings as plot devices: a boxed gift is this story’s magic doorway to a planet where trees sprout their own decorations, topped by naturally occurring stars. Like the three wise men, Reg follows a bright light in the sky to his destination. And the family Christmas dinner is central, with the Doctor even being guilted into attending Christmas dinner with his in-laws.

The previous year had been a Dickenisan Christmas; this year it’s C S Lewis’s turn. In his Chronicles of Narnia, a wardrobe in a house leads to a snow covered world, as four young evacuees from London discover. In TDTWATW, it’s the present that leads to a snow covered world, and Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy and condensed into Cyril and Lily. There’s no white witch or talking lion, but the wooden king and queen remind us that the original four kids all became Narnian royalty in the end.

But aside from Christmas and Narnia, there are other more secular themes woven through the story. It’s a familiar trick of modern story telling to pepper such themes through a story, so that a pleasing symmetry of ideas emerges by the story’s end. TDTWATW is useful in this case, because these themes are more pronounced than usual for Doctor Who.

For example, there’s following. Cyril follows the Wooden King through the forest (let’s not stop too long to ask why he does that), and later we learn that when Reg was courting our stand in companion Madge (sparky Claire Skinner), he would follow her home from work (bit creepy, but there you go). At the story’s climax, Reg follows Madge’s light back home. Ah, and we have symmetry.  We can trace the same thematic path through the story with ideas such as evacuation, happy crying and wishmaking.

But the major theme of the story though is facing up to the truth, and that telling the truth, no matter how painful, to your loved ones is the right thing to do. Madge’s inability to tell her kids about Reg’s death is an excuse for her inability to face it herself. It’s only when she admits to herself and her kids that Reg is dead, that the story reaches its conclusion and things in her fictional world are put to rights. (She teaches the Doctor this lesson too; he has similarly been avoiding telling his family – the Ponds – that he, in a pleasing inversion of Madge’s situation, is alive.)

So all in all, it’s a shame Reg has to live. That might sound a bit cruel. And yup, it is and that’s the point. Having Reg turn up at the end of the story works against the story’s theme, that you’ll only be at peace if you can admit to yourself the hurtful truth. But when he’s suddenly alive again, there’s no hurtful truth to face up to. It’s the falsely cheerful note at the end of a sorrowful lament. But hey – this is for broadcast on Christmas night, to millions of families so sentiment has its place.

But while Reg’s resurrection feels out of place with this story’s themes, it’s absolutely in step with one of the Moffat era’s recurring favourites which is that death can be cheated, or in more prosaic terms, “if you can remember someone, they can come back”. I’ve never been comfortable with this one, and am sure I’ll be writing more about it, so I won’t labour the point here, except to say that I think it sends a dangerous message to younger viewers that death is temporary. I wonder how those facing the very permanent death of loved ones in real life feel about that.

So TDTWATW is a story that shows its workings; we can see the themes layered through it and we (particularly those interested in scriptwriting) can see when and where Moffat uses each theme to create an overall effect. And it’s also a story where everyone feels like a stand in for someone else: Madge is our temporary companion, taking the place of the Ponds. Cyril and Lily are substitutes for the Narnia kids. The three Androzani harvest rangers, Droxil, Billis and Venn-Garr are jokey alter egos of the show’s three exec producers, Moffat, Beth Willis and Piers Wenger. And Reg, stuck up there in his WW2 plane is played by Alexander Armstrong, who played a similar WW2 pilot in The Armstrong and Miller Show. Even the Doctor is standing in for the house’s absent Caretaker. (But again, don’t stop too long to ask why he doesn’t just reveal himself as Madge’s fallen starman right from the get go). Everyone is a representation of someone else.

And so this is Christmas, 2011 style. And it is Madge’s story – a mother’s story – and motherhood is central to it. And this is the obvious point I missed on broadcast: Christmas is a story about birth and motherhood, and that’s why Moffat is using it here. Whether he has a ’motherhood obsession’, I couldn’t say. (Actually, I can and I think the answer is no. He’s actually more preoccupied with children and their place in Doctor Who and that naturally leads to stories about parenthood. But that’s for another blog).

It’s no coincidence that when Madge becomes the “mother ship”, the carrier for life in the form of the souls of trees, she does so without going anywhere near her husband. As crass as it sounds, Moffat has added the immaculate conception to the list of festive tropes Doctor Who wheels out at Christmas. If nothing else, that’s… audacious.

LINKS to Battlefield: Both take their starting point from classic English stories; the Arthurian legends and the works of C S Lewis.

NEXT TIME: Tonight is not my bath night. It’s our first Troughton and our first missing story, The Highlanders.


Motivation, magic and Battlefield (1989)


Pop quiz, Who heads: Who is Shou Yuing? Why that’s easy, you say. She’s Ace’s friend du jour in 1989 season opener Battlefield. And she’s a rare example of an Asian character in Doctor Who who isn’t a crude racial stereotype, you might be inclined to add, if you were feeling feisty.

But what I really meant was, who is Shou Yuing? What is she doing in Carbury? What does she do for a living? Where’s her family? Is Yuing her surname or part of her first name? Why would she suddenly give up everything she presumably has planned to hang around with Ace for four episodes? These answers are not so easy.

I suggest you turn to the TARDIS Wikia, a terrific source of info on Doctor Who recorded in obsessive level of detail. But even here you’ll struggle to find anything insightful, although there’s some amusement to be gathered from what information we do have: “Shou Yuing was a young woman living in Carbury, in rural England… She seems to have been a regular at a hotel… Shou owned a car.” Wow, a car! That does set her apart.

To be fair, it does point out that she assisted with the excavation of Carbury’s archeological dig (but is she an archeologist? You’d think she’d mention it if so) and that she likes explosives (why? If the 1980s was teeming with young women who liked making homemade bombs it slipped my attention. And it sounds like something I’d notice). Forgive me for judging by appearances, but she just doesn’t look to me like the sort of person who’s into either of those things. From her dress and her dialogue she seems to be… Well, that’s just it. I have no idea. She’s just there.

Here’s another question for you: What does Morgaine want? Most Doctor Who villains have simple needs. They want power, or revenge, or possession of something or to get off with Peri. Not Morgaine the sun killer, dominator of the thirteen worlds and battle queen of the S’Rax, though. No, she’s after… Well, what exactly?

Let’s retrace her steps. In another dimension, she was at war with Arthur, who was being assisted by Merlin, who in fact is a later incarnation of the Doctor. Arthur is killed in “the final battle”, “over a thousand years ago”, says the Doctor. But his corpse is in a dimension hopping spaceship which travels through to our world. (Was he alive and lived in our world for a time? Or did he cross over dead, as per a viking funeral?)

Morgaine believes him to be alive, so she pursues him across the dimensions. How long does she wait? Arthur is long dead by the time she arrives and the spaceship has been under Vortigern’s Lake for centuries, so did she just kick back for a while? Or did the ship travel backwards through time as well as across dimensions?

Anyway, she eventually travels across to our world, but not before some narrative bending meta commentary in Part One. Then she shoots down a helicopter (why? It’s Arthur she’s after, isn’t it?), has a strop at her son, flirts with the Brigadier and holds a war graves ceremony. Sure, it’s a busy day, but no hint yet of her big plan.

In Part Three, Ace emerges from Lake Vortigern holding Excalibur, legendary sword of Arthur and part of the spaceship’s control  system. Morgaine declares she wants the sword. Ah ha! Now we’re getting somewhere, the audience might reasonably think. Morgaine then tries a number of ways to get the sword; she sends her troops to attack our heroes in their cars, she messes with Ace’s and Shou Yuing’s minds and finally she summons up the Destroyer (a surprisingly articulate blue horned beast) to take the sword by force and blow up a pub.

It’s this last ploy that eventually works. In Part Four she says, “ I have Excalibur. Without it, Arthur sleeps forever.” Hmm. If she wanted Arthur to sleep forever, she could have just stayed at home and left him under the lake.

There’s a bit more toing and froing, but she eventually unleashes the Destroyer and prepares to leave with the sword. “Too late, Merlin!”, she crows at the Doctor. “The gateway is open. I am gone and you have lost.” But she’s then distracted by her no-good son Mordred, the Doctor grabs the sword and she disappears.

Only to reappear a minute later trying to explode the nuclear missile. It’s never explained why she’s doing this. Is it a bluff to regain Excalibur? (That old thing seems long forgotten by now.) Whatever the reason, the Doctor talks her out of it. Then she says, “tell Arthur to face me with honour in single combat.”

So wait a minute, now she wants Arthur awake? Didn’t she want the sword to prevent him from waking? The Doctor then breaks the news to her that Arthur died years ago. Morgaine is surprisingly upset and the death of her arch enemy.

MORGAINE: Where does he lie? I would look at him one final time.
DOCTOR: He’s gone to dust.
MORGAINE: Then I shall not even have that comfort.
DOCTOR: Comfort? A moment ago you wanted to kill him! I know you’re a morally ambiguous character, but jeez, make up your mind! Do you want to fight him or love him? What on earth do you want Morgaine, the sun killer, dominator of the thirteen worlds and battle queen of the S’Rax? TELL ME!

OK, I may have added that last bit. At least the Doctor seems to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation when he advises UNIT to lock this confused lady up. Yup, great idea. That will hold the magical, dimension-hopping witch.

This blog is not meant to be judgmental, and really, honestly, I do love Battlefield, but it hasn’t aged well. Reviewers have often pointed to its tackier than usual effects, its overall plasticy look and Keff McCulloch’s Stock, Aitken and Waterman soundtrack. But this blog is also, at least tangentially, about writing and to me, Battlefield shows how important thorough character development is and how it impacts on story.

But on the other hand… it has one of Doctor Who‘s best scenes in it. Bad egg Mordred has been drinking in that oft-mentioned pub, and terrorising the blind lady publican, Elizabeth. Spunky UNIT Lieutenant Lavel dashes in and Mordred takes and instant shine to her. Morgaine walks in and with the frosty disdain of a potential mother-in-law, says “Who is this?”. “A warrior maid”, replies Mordred.

The lighting is dim. Keff’s music is, for once, subtle. With a dancer’s grace, Morgaine drains Lavel’s brain of knowledge and then casually disintegrates her with a flick of her hand.

Then she notices the empty beer jugs on the bar and insists on paying for Mordred’s boozing. “I must ’get the tab’”, she says, stealing Lavel’s words and she does so by curing Elizabeth’s blindness with a sweep of her hand. The woman cries. “I can see”.

For that scene alone, I can forgive Battlefield a multitude of sins.

LINKS to The Time Warrior: Another easy one! Both have UNIT in ’em.

NEXT TIME: It’s Christmas, you moron! It’s beginning to look a lot like The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.

Funny, scary and The Time Warrior (1973)

Time Warrior

I thought it would be fun, identifying links to these disparate stories. And it is; it’s part of the appeal of watching Doctor Who randomly. But, blimey, it can be difficult sometimes. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted trying to find something which linked Death to the Daleks with Aliens of London. (Mostly because I didn’t actually count those hours. But it was more time than a grown man should spend wondering about these things. Still, you’re guilty of that too right? Please tell me you are.)

And so it was that I let out a little cheer when my random Who generator spat out The Time Warrior right after it spat out The Sontaran Stratagem. Hooray! An easy one. And so with some delight,  I’m mixing it up a bit this entry and starting with…

LINKS to The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky: They both have Sontarans in ’em. And they both feature UNIT. Job done!

But actually, there are many more links. It’s clear that The Sontaran Stratagem owes much to The Time Warrior and lovingly celebrates it. Many of The Time Warrior‘s greatest hits are replayed. The word ‘thorax’, memorably evoked in the former gets name checked in the latter. When the Tenth Doctor indulges in some plot exposition about the Sontarans’ achilles heel, their probic vent, he paraphrases the time warrior himself, Sontaran office Linx, saying it means they must always face their enemies. “Isn’t that brilliant?”, he gushes like a fanboy. Then there’s the famous cliffhanger to The Time Warrior Part One, where Linx takes off his helmet to reveal an equally dome like head. General Staal performs an encore in The Sontaran Stratagem. (In fact it’s repeated often in Sontaran stories; it’s their signature move).

Let’s linger on that moment for a moment: it’s sometimes stated that the genius of that moment is that it’s a joke – Linx’s head is the same shape as his helmet. And as jokes go, it’s fine. But it’s not a strong enough joke to be the cliffhanger to the first episode of a story, nay a season.

Remember that when Part One of The Time Warrior was broadcast, we didn’t know what a Sontaran was. We had no idea what was under that helmet. And that’s what writer Robert Holmes and director Alan Bromley wanted us to be thinking about throughout those opening 25 minutes… WTF is under that helmet?!

That cliffhanger is what we’ve been waiting for. Even when the moment comes, Linx delays our gratification a little further, giving a little sheepish glance to either side to see if anyone’s around. The Doctor’s there too, spying on Linx, as fascinated as us. Then Linx finally pulls off that helmet, and reveals that grotesque, troll-like head. Do we laugh? Maybe. Are we thrilled? Definitely. It’s funny/scary.

The Sontarans have come so familiar to us now, they’re part of the Doctor Who furniture. I think we forget how impressive that combination of costume, mask and performance is. Linx, as played by Kevin Lindsay, brings lots of scary. A gravelly voiced brute and strong as he is cunning. He easily wins a dust up with Jon Pertwee’s karate loving Doctor. I’m one of the children he frightened, because he could outwit you and beat you up; a villain and a monster.

He’s is a long way from Strax, the Eleventh Doctor’s bumbling Sontaran ally. Strax is dumb and funny. He’s a reluctant nurse. He can’t go two sentences without wishing for a weapon or spouting some bolshie nonsense. He’s funny and hugely popular. But he’s the end result of a gradual toning down of the Sontarans. They’ve now all but lost their Linxy menace and become entirely Straxy figures of fun. And one can hardly blame New Who’s producers for this; Sontarans are after all war mongering potatoes. There’s fun to be had, so we should have it. (And it’s telling that the only classic Doctor Who monster to make the leap to childrens’ series The Sarah Jane Adventure is the Sontarans. Altogether more fun than Cybermen or Daleks.)

Writer Robert Holmes, the master, of course knew that too. He intended it, and it shows throughout The Time Warrior. After all, the first thing Linx does is plant a natty little flag on the earth’s surface and claim the planet, its moons and satellites, purely for us to laugh at his pomposity. Later on he calls the philosophy of the Time Lords “egalitarian twaddle”. And when he finds out that humans come in both male and female varieties, he says “it is an inefficient system. You should change it.”

Holmes knew how to make a monster funny/scary, and frankly you can have your Slitheen, your Judoon and your Graske, this is how you do it. But when the Sontarans next come back, I’m hoping for as much scary as funny.

NEXT TIME: Boom! Boom? BOOM! Battlefield.

Guns, family and The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2007).

Sontaran Stratagem

It’s a funny old thing, this random selection of stories.  Initially, it can be quite difficult to imagine what there is to say about the latest pick. So it was with The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky. Not a story I’ve thought much about since its initial broadcast, and not one I thought of as particularly remarkable.

But then I rewatched it and, of course, there’s oodles to talk about. How about the unusual pairing of the Doctor with two female companions? How about the revival of classic series heavies the Sontarans? How about that the story’s unusually varied colour pallet gives it a sugary, rainbowy look making it look more like children’s TV than ever before? Or how about the underlying theme of geeks versus bullies?

But what I’ve landed on is the Doctor’s relationship with the military, and how this story pitches it in a way which makes the Doctor seem like a hypocritical jerk.

That’s not what I remembered about this story. Nor is being a jerk my abiding impression of David Tennant’s quicksilver tenth Doctor. Overall, I’d say he’s charismatic, fun loving and charming. And watched episode after episode, I think that impression is reinforced and becomes the norm. But watched in isolation, these episodes present a different Doctor. If this was the only Tennant story you’d seen, I think you’d have quite a unsympathetic view of him.

He spends much of the story being rude, unhelpful and snide. The target for his shirtiness is UNIT Colonel Mace (Rupert Holliday-Evans). The Doctor doesn’t like Mace because he carries a gun. “I don’t like people with guns hanging around me”, he snarls at one point. Well, I say “one point”. Actually, the script seems to hammer this home every five minutes. And he doesn’t like salutes and he doesn’t like being called Sir. OK, we get it: the Doctor doesn’t like the military.

Except… he does actually. Most of the time, he’s completely fine with it. He makes a show of ambivalence about it, sure. But openly hostile to it? No. It’s a tricky relationship and one it’s easy to over egg. Play it too stridently, as is done here, and it comes off as forced and inherently false.

(I seem to recall web series Scream of the Shalka fell into the same trap. But recall is all I’ve got; I’ve only seen it once and I can’t face watching it again.)

In DWM prior to this story’s transmission, showrunner Russell T Davies said about this story that “UNIT’s back properly”. UNIT, a mainstay of the Pertwee years, had been poking its head around the door of the new series a couple of times, but there hadn’t been a major, trooper stomping, gun firing presence in a story since Battlefield in 1989.

But back in the day, UNIT was a strange sort of top secret paramilitary organisation. It mainly consisted of the Brigadier, Cpt. Yates and Sergeant Benton. Its troops were a handful of vaguely familiar looking stuntmen. Its headquarters moved from country house to country house, and the interiors always looked like abandoned government offices. As the Tennant Doctor reminisces, “it was all a bit more homespun back then.”

Interesting choice of phrase, Doctor. Home being the place where one might find a family. And the words “UNIT” and “family” go together in Whodom. If you’ll forgive the straining of a metaphor, Pertwee’s Doctor was the mother hen, the Brigadier the exasperated henpecked father. Yates and Benton were the boisterous teenage brothers, Jo Grant the trendy, unattainable sister, and the Master the family’s black sheep.

But it’s the bromance between the Doctor and the Brigadier which is of interest here. The Brigadier carried a gun, and the Doctor hung around him and his armed buddies for years, long after his Earth exile ended. And in stories as far flung as The War Machines, The InvasionResurrection of the Daleks and even last random’s Aliens of London we’ve seen the Doctor happily consort with soldiers. For a long time in the 70s (or was it the 80s?) they were even his “family”.

And here, at last, is the thing; that family members love each other, despite their differences and their bickering. It’s this love which allows them to solve problems in different ways, but still get on. It’s why the Doctor loves the Brigadier, even though he carries a gun. And it’s why The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky does not feel like UNIT is back properly. Because it doesn’t recreate the Doctor’s relationship with UNIT, which was based on respect. Grudging perhaps, but still it was there.

And you really feel for poor old Mace, being barked at by the Doctor simply because he’s not the Brigadier. In The Poison Sky, he makes the misjudgement of ordering five soldiers, including the Doctor’s newfound buddy, handsome Ross (yes, he liked him, although he also carried a gun. Flighty git!), to engage the Sontarans in battle. He does so against the Doctor’s advice and the men are killed. The Doctor is furious, but I find it hard to blame Mace. Why should he listen to Dr. Sanctimonious who’s been insulting him constantly since they met? It’s no way to build trust.

And in the end it’s Mace who orders in the Valiant to clear the air around the factory. It’s Mace who presents a solution to the bullet jamming whatsit. And it’s these two actions which allow UNIT to recapture the factory and for the Doctor to capture Martha’s clone and regain the advantage. The Doctor doesn’t thank him, of course, and we never get a scene where the two reach detente and recognise the strength of the other’s approach.

So you make your hero a smug, unlikeable bore at the risk of alienating your audience. And when it comes to guns, this Doctor doth protest too much. He’s worked with the army willingly in the past, and many companions and allies have walked alongside him packing heat. He’s even carried and used them himself, on occasion.

And at the end of this story, he cobbles together an atmospheric igniter gadget. It burns up the poison sky, and then he converts it to work on Sontaran air. Basically, it’s a bomb. He teleports himself on to the Sontarans’ ship and delivers an ultimatum to chief badass Staal: leave or I blow you up.

He’s effectively pointing a gun at Staal’s potato head. But he’d never carry one of those, right? Right. This is completely different.

LINKS to Aliens of London/World War Three: Both have UNIT and both have aliens using human simulacra to infiltrate positions of power. But in a link back one step further to Death to the Daleks, once again the story ends with a character blowing themselves and the monsters up. In fact, this story’s suicide bomber, Luke Rattigan, like Galloway in Death, dies in an act of redemption for his wicked ways earlier in the story (and in the act, taking revenge on his former allies). I’m sure we’ll encounter this trope again, so let’s christen it the Sacrificial Blam!

NEXT TIME… I could murder a cup of tea. We’re sticking with Sontarans for The Time Warrior.

World leaders, world events and Aliens of London/World War Three (2005)

aliens of london

En route to 10 Downing St, the Doctor (Christopher Eccelston, half goofy, half broody) asks “Who’s the Prime Minister now?” To which faithful companion Rose (Billie Piper) wisely replies, “How should I know? I missed a year.” Which brings to mind Doctor Who‘s uneasy relationship with merging its own fictional universe with real life. And specifically, how it deals with world leaders.

The rules seems to be these: using an actual/historical world leader? Don’t mess too much with them. Contemporary politics though can be played with. And if you’re going to invent a fictional world leader, then feel free to put them through hell.

Let’s start with the British Prime Minister. History stands, up to a point. It would be difficult, for instance, to set a story in WW2 where Churchill is not Prime Minister. But some fun can be had with contemporary politics. The Green Death, which like all UNIT stories is set some few (but unspecified) years beyond its broadcast date, cheekily suggested that PM Edward Heath would lose the forthcoming election and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would succeed him. And Terror of the Zygons famously predicts a female Prime Minister, even though Harold Wilson was still in power.

Aliens of London manages to subvert this rule by sticking (kind of) to real life politics AND messing with it. In it, an unnamed British Prime Minister is killed. The episode was made in 2004 and set in 2006, both years when Tony Blair was the job’s real life incumbent. Writer Russell T Davies diplomatically shies away from assassinating the UK’s current PM on prime time television, but his very anonymity indicates that it’s Blair – otherwise why not invent a fictional leader to kill (which, as we’ll see, is often what happens)?

Plus the story goes on to unsubtly comment on the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq based on false evidence of “weapons of mass destruction”, a scandal in which Blair became embroiled, so it’s hard to see the PM’s death as anything other than Davies passing editorial judgement. And in the following year’s Rise of the Cybermen, Mickey suggests that an alternative universe might be one in which Tony Blair was never elected. So we know Blair exists or existed in the Doctor Who universe, and although we don’t know to which office Whoniverse Blair was elected to, I think there’s enough evidence to say he was PM and he was killed by the Slitheen.

(Mentioning Mickey reminds me that at the end of this story he shows the Doctor a newspaper with the headline ‘Alien Hoax’, by way of demonstrating the world’s willful ignorance of recent events. Funny though that the death of the Prime Minister doesn’t warrant a mention.)

So while just about giving us a real life PM, Aliens of London follows the rule that you can muck around with contemporary politics. In subsequent episodes we learn the line of succession goes Tony Blair (probably), Harriet Jones (deposed, then dies) and Harold Saxon (deposed, dies, partly reincarnated, mutates into… Oh, I can’t be arsed. Let’s just say ’dies’). Torchwood: Children of Earth then offers us Brian Green, whose name plays on that of then PM Gordon Brown. Davies decides not to kill this one, but leaves him disgraced and about to be deposed. Being a fictional PM is dicey, and this makes sense in story terms; stories which deal with big world events naturally fit with the rise and fall of leaders. If you want to depose or kill a PM in order to show the scope of your story, you can hardly do it with a real life figure. You need to invent one.

US Presidents have a similarly tricky history. The Chase showed us Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address and The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon gave us Richard Nixon; again historical figures are not messed with. But The Sound of Drums offers us a fictional president, Arthur Colman Winters, who seems to be a stand in for then president George W. Bush. As a fictional world leader, his days are numbered and before long, Winters is gruesomely iced by the Toclafane. (Again, I suspect Davies is having a bit of fun there.) By the time we get to The End of Time, though, history has reasserted itself, and real life POTUS Barack Obama is in office. Being a real life leader, he gets to live.

Anyway, the vagaries of how the show deals with world leaders is just part of a bigger problem with classic Doctor Who always struggled with and that the new series, starting with Aliens of London, tackles head on. The problem is this: how do you show a world crisis, from a small setting?

There were two ways of doing it in the classic series. The first was to rely on “reports coming in from around the world”. Usually recited by a raspy computer. Or told in half heard telephone conversations around a busy UNIT operations room. Maybe plotting incidents on a handy map. The Tenth Planet even had a office in Geneva tracking Cybermen worldwide. Alien invasions of the world!  All told without moving from Television Centre.

The other way is just to ignore the rest of the world. I’m thinking here of stories like The Web of Fear, where London is under attack and although the threat posed by the Yeti is formidable, there’s no call for assistance from any of the UK’s allies. Could the Yeti stand up to the combined forces of NATO for instance? Probably not. So let’s pretend those combined forces don’t exist.

The new series deals with it better and has even developed a house style for this sort of thing, and it starts with Aliens of London. We see TV reports from around the world (Trinity Wells becomes a recurring character as the US news anchor. With each subsequent appearance, she becomes an ever more knowing wink to this globe trotting technique). We get some special effects shots of aliens in front of world landmarks. We still get reports coming in from around the world. And the combination of these is enough to sell us the idea that aliens invade the world, not just London. Or in this case, aliens invade London, but the world is watching.

As for the story itself? Well, it was shot in the new series first production block and it shows new Who trying to define its tone, and not nailing it straight away. With its giggling, farting aliens, and its arch self awareness, this is much more camp than the new series will turn out to be. But in how it tells a story of scale, it sets up quite a few rules which the series follows.

LINKS to Death to the Daleks: this took me a while, but try this one on for size. In both, there’s a climactic act of self sacrifice that leads to the monsters being blown up (although in Death, the self sacrificer Galloway dies, while in World War Three, the Doctor, Rose and Harriet survive).

NEXT TIME… Back of the neck! It’s The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky.

Cover art, saxophone music and Death to the Daleks (1974)

death1death 2death 3

Some Doctor Who stories are defined by what happens in them. The Green Death, for instance, will forever be The One With The Giant Maggots (an episode of Friends we’d all like to see, I think). Earthshock, The One Where Adric Died. Victory of the Daleks, The One with The Dalek Design Everyone Hated. (Bit harsh, but a bit true).

To me though, Death to the Daleks is the ’burning Dalek’ story, and is defined not by what happens in it, but by the one image most associated with it; that of a Dalek on fire. It comes from an incident in Episode Two, when the Daleks have come under attack from the local inhabitants of this week’s planet, the quarry-like Exxilon. The Exxilons are armed only with spears, arrows and a can-do attitude, and they set on one Dalek, who (inexplicably) explodes and catches fire.

That provided the on set photographer with a great opportunity to snap away, and so we have lots of photos of the Dalek flambe. I think I’m right in saying that’s the first (only?) time we’ve seen a Dalek on fire. It’s a moment which must have stuck in the audience’s collective memory. When Roy Knipe came to paint the cover of the Target novelisation, the exploding Dalek was the image he chose. And it’s a great cover; colourful, eye catching, unit shifting. It had a life beyond the novelisation too; there was certainly a poster of it and I think it was used as a promotional image for the book range too. If there was a Doctor Who art prize (and there should be), this would surely be a contender.

That image pursues Death to the Daleks through all its incarnations; the VHS release, the Target reprint, the DVD release all feature an exploding or burning Dalek. It seems you can’t release Death to the Daleks in any format without a Dalek in distress on the cover. The story’s unusually declamatory title probably skews the cover designs in this direction, but there is some form here in other stories.  It’s understandable Horror of Fang Rock needs a lighthouse on it no matter the format, but you also, apparently, must have an image of the Doctor carrying a load of old rope. It’s mandatory, it seems, to have clockwork cogs on any release of The Invasion of Time.  And so on.

The other element which, um, distinguishes Death is its groovy, saxophoney music. It belongs to a subset of Doctor Who stories from the late sixties and throughout the seventies which I think of as the “not Dudleys”. And as genius as regular series composer Dudley Simpson’s work is, you can have too much of a good thing, and so the handful of stories from this period he didn’t score stand out. Cary Blyton (whose most famous work is not from Doctor Who, but the theme song to Bananas in Pyjamas, long burnt into the memory of Australians and their kids) produced three eclectic Not Dudley scores, and Death‘s is the oddest.

It’s difficult to imagine the train of thought which starts with “what’s the most effective way to score a Doctor Who?” And ends with “Why, with a saxophone quartet, of course!”. Dudley never had many players at his disposal but he did seek to use a variety of instruments. Blyton on the other hand must have been a passionate advocate for saxophone’s versatility to devote a whole serial to showcasing it. The score is at its most distinctive when it uses Blyton’s theme for the Daleks, which climbs and falls through a series of scales, giving them a faintly Clouseau-esque appeal. You know the one I’m talking about, don’t you? Stuck in your head now? If not, relive it here .

So those are the stand out elements of Death to the Daleks: it’s book cover and its music (and I’m tempted to add the Dalek which stands in shot idle, operator-less, hoping the viewers won’t notice). Jeez, that must make it a fairly unremarkable story in its own right?

Um, yes. Yes it does. Well, more generic than unremarkable. At this stage, writer Terry Nation was well into recycling elements from his previous stories. Once again, a small group of space exlporers are at odds with the Daleks. Once again, there’s a hostile indigenous species. Inevitably, there’s mining. Even the Exxilon’s living city, sometimes cited as the story’s stand out idea, is really just a bigger badder version of a similar machine which got too big for its boots from The Keys of Marinus.

But there is one fresh and unique idea at this story’s heart: that robbed of power, the Doctor and the Daleks are forced to collaborate. That scenario has legs even today. Imagine: the current Doctor discovers a colossal threat – a new breed of vicious, power-mad Time Lords wannabees perhaps. So he’s forced to align himself with the only force we knows can beat such a threat – his oldest enemies. The Doctor standing alongside legions of Daleks. A new time war is declared. Cue end of episode. 

I’d watch that. Even if they drenched it in saxophone music.

LINK to The Awakening. In both, the Doctor’s female companion is threatened with being burned alive. At least I think that’s what’s suggested in Death; it’s never actually stated how the Exxilons are going to sacrifice Sarah, but there’s a shot of her staring into some flames. Good enough for me. After all, The Awakening is the story of tenuous links.

NEXT TIME… You’re so gay! Random’s first Eccleston story is Aliens of London/World War Three.

Showing, telling and The Awakening (1984)


In my head, this is how The Awakening starts: a fierce pitched battle between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Clashing swords, battle cries, whinnying horses, soldiers falling. It’s chaos, restoration style. The viewer knows straight away; we’re in the seventeenth century.

Suddenly, a car drives through the melee, lights flashing, horn beeping. It’s local stick-in-the-mud Jane Hampden. She jumps out imploring the combatants to stop. Grumpily they do, their fun spoilt. A few apparently dead soldiers get up, helped by their faux opponents. The viewer realises it was all a game, and we’re actually in the 1980s. It’s a great way to start an episode of Doctor Who, confounding expectations in a (oh, must I say it?) timey-wimey way.

Why doesn’t The Awakening start this way? Time and money, of course, Doctor Who‘s greatest enemies. Instead, it starts with Jane being mildly frightened by three men on horses.

Now I’m not here to criticise this charming but often bewildering little two-parter for what it’s not. But it’s clear from the beginning that we’re never actually going to see Little Hodcombe’s famous war games in action. And that critically undermines the story.

’cause here’s the thing: the entire plot hangs around the war games. The idea is that the mock battles between the villagers have awoken an alien being called the Malus. It’s been sleeping in an old church since the olden days, and it’s stirring because it feeds off the “psychic energy” generated by the games. The fake battles have been gradually getting more boisterous and, as the Doctor deduces, the ultimate battle will descend into actual violence where the participants will be killed, and the Malus will fully awake.

“Show, don’t tell” is a pretty good rule for screenwriters, and breaking that rule is what The Awakening does throughout. We never see the war games between the villagers, so we can’t imagine them getting out of hand. As a viewer, we don’t know (or care) what’s at stake. In fact, we only ever meet three war gamers: local loon Sir George Hutchinson, good egg Ben Wolsey and nasty piece of work Joseph Willow. They might be a bit wacky, but it’s hard to imagine them actually hacking into their neighbours with swords.

Luckily Sir George (played with relish by Denis Lill), is a delightfully barking creation. It eventually transpires that he’s possessed by the Malus, which might go some way to explaining his dedication to historical reenactment. As far as I can work out, his story goes something like this: he’s the local magistrate in Little Hodcombe. One day, village historian Andrew Verney tells him that he’s discovered a passage linking the local courthouse to the church, where, he suspects, a creature from local legend, the Malus, is buried. Sir George somehow comes in contact with the Malus and then concocts the plan (is it his own? Or is he being subconsciously influenced by the Malus?) to stage a series of war game reenactments.

So then what? Well, I can only imagine Sir George is an active member of the Little Hodcombe Amateur Dramatic society, and thus knows a good costumier. “Mrs Snodgrass, I need Roundhead and Cavalier outfits for the entire village! They must be perfect in every detail!” “Oh Sir George, I don’t think we have that many of those. What about the Wild West? I’ve got plenty of duds left over from Oklahoma! Last year.” “I want costumes, Mrs Snodgrass, not excuses!”. Anyway somehow he manages it, and finds all the weapons too, and the horses, and closes off the village into the bargain. He never takes off his costume either. It’s that sort of dedication to a cause which surely got him knighted.

It’s also got moments of unusual violence. There can’t be many Doctor Who stories where people are decapitated (off screen, thankfully) – The Reign of Terror, maybe? – but The Awakening is one of them. There’s another moment when Verney and Turlough knock two men unconscious with stone debris from the damaged church. It’s one of those moments of casual, incidental violence, depicted in a tame, knock-the-guards-unconscious-and-let’s-be-on-our-way manner, so common in Doctor Who as to be unremarkable.

But just think about that for a moment: if someone smashed your head from behind with a lump of concrete, you wouldn’t just be momentarily stunned, you’d be seriously hurt. It’s odd that a certain type of violence is “safe” for a Doctor Who audience. The Doctor doesn’t mind; he even congratulates Turlough, as he and his coterie run past the prostrate pair and get on with the story.

Which reminds me that the entire cast of The Awakening save batty old Sir George (who dies when he’s pushed over a small ledge into the Malus’s big polystyrene face – which just goes to show that for every shocking act of violence in Doctor Who there’s usually another, utterly lame one to make up for it) ends up running around with the Doctor until the story expires. The mob steadily grows throughout Part Two, until we’ve got six, then seven, people running between church and TARDIS with him. Some amusement can be gained by seeing them all try to ensure they’re in shot in the church scenes. By the time this clump of people have made it inside the TARDIS, the director gives up and does one long pan to fit them all in. I ended up daydreaming about which ones should have met a sticky end earlier in the episode to save space (Willow, I reckon. Probably Ben too.) (For similar crowded antics see Delta and the Bannermen and Journey’s End).

So the story ends with the Doctor flicking a few switches on the TARDIS console while the crowd looks on. But in my head, it ends in that final battle of the war games, much promised, but never seen. The battle rages, more frenetic and aggressive than before. Turlough is in the middle of it, shanghaied into service on one of the sides. Tegan is tied to the maypole, flames licking at her feet. The giant Malus strides across the battlefield, rejoicing in the carnage, while the Doctor struggles to destroy it, beset by phantom swordsmen. A story with everything shown, rather than told.

LINKS to The Next Doctor. Both feature an invading alien colluding with a human villain and ultimately destroying them. Which, I realise, hardly makes them unique among Doctor Who stories. But as The Awakening was released on DVD in a boxset with, of all stories, The Gunfighters based on the fact that both are set on Earth, I figure this story is probably the patron saint on tenuous links.

NEXT TIME… I can sink anywhere. It’s Death to the Daleks.