Female heroism, male template and The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018)

womanfell

Here’s the thing: we’ve never had a female Doctor before.

I know. Thank you, Captain Obvious. But let me explain.

There was a time when female heroes were rare. Particularly rare on TV and in films. I’m a child of the 70s, so I remember those days well. But things have changed.

These days, it’s not hard to find female heroes in popular culture, and film and TV is helping break down tired old stereotypes. Everything from police procedural dramas to super hero blockbusters have female leads. It’s not groundbreaking or even unusual to see female-led drama. Often, these women take on heroic tasks which were traditionally the sole province of men. So we see women who can fight. Women who can solve mysteries. Women who can fix things. Women who can be funny.

But even with female heroism being commonplace, watching Jodie Whittaker take on the role of the Doctor is a revelation. And it’s not because the show suddenly has a female lead being smart. Or being brave. Or being funny. It’s because we at last have a female lead being all of these things at once.

This story reminded me what a multifaceted character the Doctor is. That’s not so rare, if you’re thinking about blokes in fiction. Male heroes are, for some reason, allowed to be many things at once. The Doctor, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, Starlord… you can find male poly-heroes everywhere. But female heroes tend to be specialists. Geniuses, warriors, adventurers and clowns – take your choice of one.

So we’ve seen plenty of female heroes, but we’ve never had a female Doctor before. That’s why Whittaker’s not just an innovation for Doctor Who but for popular culture as a whole. It’s why her Doctor feels so brilliantly new and necessary.

***

So exactly who is a female Doctor meant to be?

I know! Not so Captain Obvious now, right?

Showrunner Chris Chibnall has taken the sensible decision to underplay the Doctor’s gender change. It’s a move intended, I suspect, to position the essential Doctorness of the character as unchanged, regardless of whether she’s played by a man or a woman. And to show that the series functions in the same way, whether it has a male or female Doctor. There’s no need to continually reference the gender change and do so would patronise everyone involved. (Still, it makes me wonder how Steven Moffat would have handled it. Do you think we would have got through her first season without a boob joke? I can’t imagine it).

But the deliberate effort to present an image of, “business as usual, regardless whether it’s him or her” leaves a couple of questions unanswered. Should the thirteenth Doctor be essentially the same character as her male predecessors, or should she take this opportunity to be a distinctly female Doctor? Should she be a female variant on an established template, or should create a whole new template? And if our first ever female Doctor just behaves like all the men who came before her, then exactly what is new?

To offer some examples: as Series 11 has played out, some have voiced a wish for the Doctor to be more assertive and confrontational. Some have wanted her to stand up to the villains more frequently and more forcefully. Some have wanted moments of righteous anger. Why? Because these are all things previous Doctors have done.

So in one sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to want the thirteenth Doctor to get to do all the things male Doctors have done, particularly if things like taking down a villain or losing your rag at a particularly despicable person are seen as characteristically Doctorly things to do. We want her to do everything the various hes could.

But on the other hand, it seems perverse to want our first female Doctor to behave just like all the men we’ve seen before. Shouldn’t we expect, if not relish, seeing her approach problems differently to her male counterparts? Shouldn’t we see the strength in this?

Perhaps what we’re discovering is that there’s a set of things we expect every Doctor to be able to do – and to get the chance to do. Blow up a Dalek. Talk down a villain. Punch the neutron flow and reverse the polarity of a racist. If we didn’t see a female Doctor do these essentially Doctorish things, she’d feel inauthentic.

But every time she does something different to her predecessors, every time she takes a subtler approach, or lets her companions take the spotlight or plays a moment with unexpected empathy, we seem to be asking why she’s not acting like a male Doctor. And that feels weird to me. If Chibnall had cast a man as the thirteenth Doctor, would we be questioning his every variation from the Doctorly norm? Would we more readily accept each idiosyncrasy as an innovation on a standard template, rather than questioning if he should be more like what’s come before?

We will never know. But I fear this will haunt Whittaker’s time as the Doctor. This tug-of-war between being the same and being different.

***

Funnily enough, concerns about the thirteenth Doctor’s passivity, her lack of confrontational exchanges and so on date from after The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Here she does face up to the big bad. And she does get to do the full gamut of Doctory traits (save a moment of sudden, unexpected anger) and with moments of steely determination, plus welding stuff. And she gets to jump off a crane, in a big moment of physicality. She’s Doctor af.

But she is showing us new elements to our favourite character too. She latches on to the first set of people she sees and adopts them as her “fam”. She takes an almost parental interest in Ryan (Tosin Cole), and a BFF relationship with Yaz (Mandip Gill). We start to see hints of the relentlessly enthusiastic fun-seeker she’ll shortly become. Her sparking new mind is constantly on the edge of distraction. She’s more interested in running mental rings around her opponents than blowing them up. And perhaps more so than any Doctor before her, she wants to connect with the people around her and to engage with humanity.

“We can evolve while still staying true to who we are,” the Doctor says as she finally regains her sense of self.  “We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” If she gets the space to do just that, we really will have an extraordinary Doctor to travel with over the next few seasons.

So sayeth Captain Obvious again.

LINK TO The Lie of the Land: Neither story features the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… How is it you can be such a stupid, stubborn, irrational and thoroughly objectionable old idiot?! It’s dinner for two with The Two Doctors.

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The highs, the lows and The Lie of the Land (2017)

lie of the land

Sometimes, we get the best and worst of Doctor Who in one single episode. So come on down The Lie of the Land, which for me shows both those things in short order. It’s a tale of two scenes.

Let’s get the first and worst out of the way. It’s the most infamous scene in the story, and perhaps, in time, will become the most infamous in the whole of the new series. It’s the one where the Doctor (waspish Peter Capaldi) goads his companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) into shooting him, for no good reason.

The story goes that in a world subjugated by alien Monks, the Doctor has gone over to their side, issuing regular video sermons like it’s 1984. Bill is convinced he’s faking it and concocts a plan with fellow companion Nardole (Matt Lucas) to rescue the Doctor from the prison ship on which he’s being held.

(It’s easy to see why Bill jumps to that conclusion. Faking being bad is a standard Doctory ploy. And it’s not just that scenario which feels familiar. The whole episode, focussing as it does on what happens when the invaders have won and established a totalitarian regime, feels like a retread of The Sound of Drums/The Last of the Time Lords, complete with scenes of people being dragged from their family homes and towering statues of the dictators in question.)

Once Bill and Nardole arrive on the ship, they find their way to the Doctor’s office, but it appears they have made a critical miscalculation. The Doctor hasn’t been faking it. He really has given up and capitulated to the Monks. He berates Bill for causing the situation by asking the Monks for his sight back. He threatens to hand her over to the guards. For Bill, who has spent months fighting against the Monks’ mind control and struggling to hold on to what’s real, this is too much. Distraught, she snatches a gun and shoots the Doctor three times in the chest.

Which is when the Doctor fakes a regeneration, reveals the bullets were blanks and reverses his fake out. He was fooling her all the time. He’s not in league with the Monks. Nardole and everyone else in the room was in on it. He played out this macabre charade, because “I had to just check that you weren’t under the influence and testing me.” The end result is Bill humiliated in a room full of people, after her friend psychologically tortured her to the point where she attempted to murder him. For the sake of a cheap trick.

The Doctor faking that he’s gone bad is everywhere from The Invasion of Time to Mindwarp. And the Doctor breaking down his companions’ faith in him is equally common from The Curse of Fenric to The God Complex. But never before has the Doctor coerced one of his friends into murder. Sure, it’s an exercise in “how far can we take this?”, complete with an ersatz regeneration. But it’s not important to the plot, it’s instantly forgotten and it’s unnecessarily cruel. Bill never gets to redress this emotional abuse and humiliation. It’s the most poorly judged moment since the show’s return; the equivalent of the strangling in The Twin Dilemma. May we never see its like again.

But then – the second of these two remarkable scenes.

The Doctor and Bill realise they need some intel to help them beat the Monks so they decide to open the Vault and consult Missy (Michelle Gomez). There isn’t a Doctor Who story around which wouldn’t be enlivened by a scene with Missy and this one is straight out of The Silence of the Lambs, in which serial killer Hannibal Lecter is consulted by young detective Clarice Starling on how to catch another murderer. Like Lecter, Missy issues her advice from within a cell. She taunts and flirts with our heroes. She is, despite being caged, in complete control of the scene. One minute she’s a school mistress, circling her enclosure, correcting the Doctor’s faulty reasoning. The next she’s a vamp, rolling around on the top of a grand piano.

The Doctor and Bill have come asking for Missy’s help and she knows it. She starts with bragging that she could easily escape if she wanted to and then starts the horse trading. She wants a 3D printer and a pony apparently, but that’s a transparent lie. She already has what she wants. That’s the Doctor’s attention.

Better than that, the Doctor is going to be in debt to her and she can use that to her advantage. She’s correctly anticipated the situation and she knows that to defeat the Monks. Bill has to die. “Awk-ward,” Missy sing songs when she breaks this news to Bill, her steely eyes revealing that she knew this was where they were heading all along.

And it ends beautifully, with Missy pointing out that the Doctor doesn’t have a monopoly on virtue, and that the answers he seeks aren’t always easy.

MISSY: I’m sorry your plus one doesn’t get a happy ending, but, like it or not, I just saved this world because I want to change. Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant and sentimental.

And after watching the scene where the Doctor indulged in mental torture of his best friend, who could argue with the vain and arrogant part?

It’s a delicious, elegant scene. But it seems to me there’s so much untapped dramatic potential here. Imagine a better version of that first scene where Missy taunts Bill into defeating the Monks by shooting the Doctor. Or if the Doctor had indeed teamed up with Monk and Bill and Nardole had to release Missy to defeat him. Where might we ended up under these or any number of other scenarios? Not, I hope with an ending where the all powerful alien conquerors are defeated by a memory of Bill’s mum. Not since Azal was confused to death by Jo has a badass been defeated more bewilderingly.

I realise I’ve been a little more judgemental of this story than I am usually am in these posts. But as you might have guessed from my thoughts on Extremis, I find the Monk trilogy unusually frustrating. Clearly trying to do something new, but so clearly mired in what’s been done before. And in The Lie of the Land’s case, being muddled in tone and plot alike.

But then I remember that showrunner Steven Moffat was distracted at this time of script editing this by the death of his mother. Apparently, he was struggling to complete this episode as she passed away. That’s unspeakably sad and it goes some way to explaining the unevenness of this adventure. If there’s ever been an episode where we need to cut the Moff some slack, it’s surely this one.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that The Lie of the Land is one moment clumsy and morally dubious, the next smart and stylish. I keep coming back to The Twin Dilemma. Like that infamous story, it leaves us with the queasy feeling that the companion is not safe in the Doctor’s presence, because at any moment she might find herself on the wrong end of his changeable morality. And that we as viewers aren’t in safe hands, in an episode which swings between such extremes of quality. With the good and the bad in such quick succession, it makes for an uneasy rollercoaster ride of a story.

LINK TO Carnival of Monsters: both feature Cybermen cameos.

NEXT TIME… Right then, troops. No, not troops. Team? Gang? fam? We end the year with the new Doctor in The Woman Who Fell To Earth.

 

Television, disruption and Carnival of Monsters (1973)

carnival

“You’ve discovered television, haven’t you?” asked the Doctor, back in 100,000BC. (Not “invented,” but “discovered”. Such an odd choice of verb. Like an exotic island he came across on a map.) He’s trying to explain to his new human companions why the TARDIS is bigger on the inside and he equates television with putting “an enormous building into one of your smaller sitting rooms”.

It’s a strange analogy. It seems to indicate that the writer doesn’t quite have a grasp on how television works – as if it still seems like magic to him. Like the TARDIS, a TV is a box in which impossibly large spaces – whole worlds, in fact – are contained. Walking into the TARDIS, the Doctor is saying, is a bit like if you could walk into your television set.

From the same magic box in the space year of 1973, comes Carnival of Monsters, a joyous, colourful splash of fun in the usually po-faced Pertwee era. It’s the story of when a planet “discovers” television and everything goes to hell in a dimensionally transcendental handbasket.

Television arrives on the dry and dusty planet of Inter Minor in the form of a “miniscope”. The miniscope is like TVs used to be – a bulky, awkward piece of furniture, which has to be manhandled into position (in this case by a group of rubber faced “functionaries”). The import of its heft may be lost on anyone who has grown up in the era of flat screen TVs, but in the olden days, TVs were big boxes which fuelled many a child’s belief that little people lived in the TV and performed all the programs live. Imagine if you could have put your hand inside and interacted with those miniature thespians within. Wouldn’t every young Doctor Who fan would have loved to reach into that box and pluck out the TARDIS, as happens at the end of Episode One?

When televisions first arrived in houses, they were disruptive elements. Evening schedules were rescheduled so families could huddle around them. Other recreational activities were dropped. Visitors without TVs popped in to see what all the fuss was about. Social rules got rewritten. Old habits were challenged. So it’s no surprise then that the miniscope causes a sensation on Inter Minor.

It’s a planet inhabited by grey-faced bureaucrats (literally). We meet a triumvirate of these pompous pen pushers: permanent flustered Pletrac (Peter Halliday), permanently bemused Orum (Terence Lodge) and slippery eel Kalik (Michael Wisher). This fussy trio bitch and whine and generally keep us amused with their stuffy language and their love of procedure. But still, they don’t hesitate to shoot down protesters in the street if they dare to dissent. Inter Minor’s still a police state, even if the representatives of that state are played for laughs.

The scope’s operators – Vorg (Leslie Dwyer) and Shirna (Cheryl Hall) – are the ones who bring the device to Inter Minor, tumbling with it out of the back of a cargo ship. Vorg and Shirna are wildly different to the Inter Minorans. He dresses in a Sixth Doctor-esque ensemble, except turned up to 11, and she dresses in Peri Brown lycra, only more of it and with more baubles. That they are different to the drab officials around them is obvious. But because of their stewardship of the miniscope, I think writer Robert Holmes is equating them with people who make TV programs. They are illusionists, storytellers and scammers. Viewed by those around them as glitzy showbiz types. Slightly untrustworthy. TV types as the new carnies.

The Inter Minorans are suspicious of Vorg and Shirna, but it’s more than just old fashioned xenophobia. They don’t understand the purpose of the miniscope. It arrives to disrupt their world, as surely as if it turned up in their living rooms, and they’re worried. What new, dangerous ideas might it introduce into their tightly wound-up society? Vorg has to reassure them: “Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political,” he has to say. That TV is viewed as a dangerous, potentially subversive element would not have been a concept unheard of in the age of Mary Whitehouse.

When Vorg starts to demonstrate the ‘scope, its similarity to television becomes clear. You can switch channels to watch programs about Ogrons, Drashigs or Cybermen. When the reception goes bad, it’s like “watching a blob in a snowstorm,” and Shirna wonders who’s going to pay good credit bars for that (a familiar complaint for UK viewers who pay a licence fee). Yes, the scope is clearly signalled as a sci-fi peepshow, but Holmes is pointing out that TV is the contemporary equivalent.

Holmes is also showing the authorial choices that TV makes employ to create that peepshow. He uses Vorg to do this. One of the shows you can watch on the scope is the mystery of the SS Bernice, a cargo steamer from the 1920s crossing the Indian ocean. Vorg demonstrates how if we wants to increase the tension in the scene, he need only turn up the “aggrometer” and the inhabitants – in this case the Doctor and young buck Andrews (Ian Marter) can be made to fight. Vorg is now Holmes, sitting in front of his typewriter and turning up of the aggrometer, is a writer amping up the tension in a scene. Or to choose a more modern example, it’s the producers of Big Brother or Love Island, deliberately stirring up their casts of fame seekers to manufacture some drama for their next episode. Poke ‘em with a stick and make ‘em jump, as the Doctor explains to Jo (Katy Manning).

Our heroes work out what’s going on by enduring multiple renditions of the same scene on board the SS Bernice, albeit with small variations each time (again, the drafting and re-drafting process of a script writer comes to life). They helpfully point out a few continuity errors like the calendar and the light outside being wrong. Then they clamber around its innards for a while, before the Doctor stumbles out of the box at the end of Episode Three. Another childhood fantasy enacted: that the people within the TV, might break out and escape.

That’s when it all turns back into a normal Doctor Who story. The Drashigs escape and run amok on Inter Minor, chewing up Kalik the would-be usurper in the process. The Doctor builds a gadget to fix everything. The scope blows a cathode ray tube or something and everyone goes home. All in all, a most diverting evening in around the box.

If we could chart classic Doctor Who’s representation of television, Carnival of Monsters is in the middle of a spectrum, which starts with Hartnell stories like 100,000 BC and The Chase which position it as a magical box of wonders, progresses through to Vengeance on Varos which shows it as a tool for suppressing the masses and ends with Remembrance of the Daleks, which revels in nostalgia for it. It’s a kind of emotional journey for the show, from reverence to suspicion and finally to affection. But of these, Carnival of Monsters is the wittiest, presenting TV as something which changes societies and commenting on how stories are constructed. Nothing serious, nothing political but definitely something fascinating.

LINK TO Twice Upon a TimeBoth feature Cyber-cameos.

NEXT TIME… Monky business in The Lie of the Land.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illness, inadequacy and Vincent and the Doctor (2010)

vincent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pip, Jane and Time and the Rani (1987)

rani

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

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

  1. Vivid adjective, descriptive noun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOCTOR: This is what I’ll never forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOCTOR: Malfunctioning? Malfunctioning? Malfunctioning?!!!

  1. Forget, spare me and never mind

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

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

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

  1. I’ve got a better word

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

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

DOCTOR: Beyus, why have you assisted?

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

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

RAVENSWORTH: The violence has been horrendous.

PERI: Murderous would be more apt.

Careful not to tie yourself up in knots, though:

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

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

MEL: The word should be “criminal”.

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

RANI: The aggression is an unfortunate side effect.

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

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

  1. And that better word is “astute”

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

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

It’s all very… astute, I suppose.

  1. Question? Rebuke!

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

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

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

DOCTOR: Destroyed? Let’s not be hasty.

RANI: Pride? I’m a scientist.

MASTER: Capricious? Turning mice into monsters.

DOCTOR: University? You remind me of someone.

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

Irritating? You bet.

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

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

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

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

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

RANI: Selective retribution will bring any dissidents to heel.

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

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

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

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

DOCTOR: Leave me to my static and solitary peregrinations.

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

His malevolent alter ego is no different:

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

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

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

It reaches its inevitable apotheosis in this infamous example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Road trip, stolen Ship and Marco Polo (1964)

Marco

There’s a school of thought that whilst Inside the Spaceship, the original TARDIS crew erupts into conflict and then everyone makes up, settling into a comfortable team. This is allegedly the point where, after 13 weeks of experimentation, the show finds its standard shape and settles into a pattern. From this point of view, Marco Polo is a standard historical adventure, albeit the first and a bit grander than most. But this neglects how wildly experimental it is and that it too plays a part in helping the show find its groove. The Keys of Marinus feels much more like the typical sort of story Doctor Who will settle into. Marco Polo is, aptly enough, exploratory.

Its original name was A Journey to Cathay and that suits it far better. Because this is a literal journey across 13th century China and a metaphoric journey for our travellers and chief protagonist Marco Polo (Mark Eden). Uniquely, this is a story which takes months to unfold; the televised sections are just the edited highlights, linked by narrative excerpts from Polo’s diary. This makes it Doctor Who’s only road trip story, and such stories are always about charting the change in characters as they progress along their journey.

What did this story’s viewers back in 1964 think of being dragged along this trek for nearly two months with our heroes? They would surely have noticed, even in its weekly episodic formats, a plot which is the slowest of slow burns. Writer John Lucarotti gently doles out incident after incident for seven weeks, fuelled by two major plot strands which sustain the dramatic tension. The first is the struggle for possession of the TARDIS, played out between our heroes and Polo. The second is the treachery of Mongol warlord Tegana (Derryn Nesbitt) which the TARDIS crew are convinced of, but Polo is not.

The first plot strand prompts multiple attempts by the Doctor (a waspish William Hartnell) and his friends to regain the TARDIS by fair means or foul. Each gambit gets frustratingly closer than the last, but each inevitably fails and with each failure, those earliest episodic viewers must have realised they had at least one more week of Chinese antics left before the series got back to bug eyed monsters. The second plot strand generates various attempts by Tegana to disrupt Polo’s caravan. All his ploys – your draining of water gourds, your facilitation of bandit attacks and so on – are shared with the audience before he attempts them, keeping us one step ahead of both Polo and our TARDIS chums.

The incidents within these two plot strands repeat and overlap each other through the seven episodes. In fact, the whole story is a bit like listening to two vinyl records simultaneously, both of them stuck on a groove. Our friends plan an escape, make their attempt, they fail and face the consequences. Tegana hatches a plot, executes it and is foiled. Repeat and repeat until we reach Peking.

And in between these two narrative drivers, there are other road trip hijinks to fit in: getting lost in a sandstorm, a runaway girl, an attempt to steal the Ship. There’s even time for a poetry recital in the middle of it. This story is in no hurry.

Which is good, because it’s also trying to teach you stuff. Not an episode goes by without an attempt to educate as well as entertain, on subjects as diverse as the boiling temperature of water at heights, how condensation works, the speed of messengers on horseback and the explosive potential of bamboo. Never has the show’s original instructive premise been taken so seriously.

This what I mean by the story being experimental: it’s working out what a Doctor Who historical should be. Should there be a problem for our TARDIS crew to solve? Or should they simply be caught up in events, struggling to get back to the Ship? Should each episode be scattered through with educational nuggets? What’s the mix between drama and comedy? It’s notable that they never again tried another 7 episode historical; after Season 1, all historicals are restricted to 4 parts. Marco Polo is R&D for all the other historicals. Even the 21st century’s celebrity historicals take their lead from this one.

There’s also something experimental in its exploration of morals and its ability to tie them to its plot. The recovery of the TARDIS is a case in point. Polo confiscates the TARDIS because he wants to give it to Kublai Khan (Martin Miller, one of many actors in yellowface, unfortunately). The Doctor makes various attempts to steal it back… but the message here is he can’t win through trickery. Even when he’s an odds on favourite to win it back from the Khan in a game of backgammon, he loses. He doesn’t regain the TARDIS until Polo gives it back to him… and that act is the culmination of a corresponding moral journey for Polo.

It takes seven episodes for Polo to realise the truth of things he’s been struggling with since he met the travellers on the roof of the world. Tegana is up to no good, as our heroes have been telling him. And the TARDIS was not his to take in the first place. To bring the story to its end, to complete is own personal journey, he has to recognise and defeat his enemy but also do the right thing and give back the Ship. True, it’s kind of arbitrary that it takes seven episodes to make it happen. It could have taken four or six or ten, but that’s the saga format for you. It can take as long as you want to reach a destination.

But now that I think of it… wouldn’t it have been more fun if Marco Polo had ditched its pretentions to moral and educational instruction? It could be more like a road trip movie – a kind of Doctor Who version of The Hangover? The Doctor, Ian (William Russell) and Polo, could go out on the tear and wake up to a tiger in their caravan. Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Ping Cho (Zienia Merton) could steal a couple of fast horses and rack up some bills on the Khan’s expense account. Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) could wake up married to that handsome Ling Tau (Paul Carson). Now those seven episodes would fly past in a blur! And as the Ship departs our heroes could all wearily agree that what happens in Cathay, stays in Cathay.

LINK TO The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Apprentice: the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS in both.

NEXT TIME… Inquests bore me. But luckily it’s Time and the Rani.

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