Sliding Doors, Family Feud and Amy’s Choice (2010)

amy choice

Way back in Four to Doomsday, someone – Persuasion, I think – described love as the exchange of two fantasies. As it happens, it’s also an apt description of Amy’s Choice, a beguiling little story which imagines a scenario whereby the underlying tension within its TARDIS crew, now consisting of three spunky 20 somethings, can be exploited.

That crew and the faultline that runs through it centres on Amy (willowy Karen Gillan). Amy’s natural desire to have her cake and eat it too means she’s travelling with both her fiancé Rory (boy next door Arthur Darvill) and her new crush, the Doctor (boy next century Matt Smith). It’s a bizarre love triangle for sure and her choice between the two is symbolised by the two dream worlds she’s asked to choose between by sinister genie, the Dream Lord (Toby Jones).

One scenario is set in sleepy old Leadworth, where the Ponds have settled into domestic stultification. Rory has an unconvincing ponytail, Amy an unconvincing baby bump but in this rustic little village, they have made a home. (Incidentally, there’s a funny upwardly mobile progression in companion’s homes in 21st century Who. Rose lived in a council estate, Martha in a city flat, Donna in a suburban house and now, Amy, in a big house in the country) Leadworth represents everything Rory is: stable, reliable and a bit dull. The quiet life.

Then, of course, the quiet life is disturbed by a group of deadly aliens hiding inside a bunch of retirement home residents. Turns out the Rory option is an actually a Doctor Who story by Douglas Adams.

The other scenario is set inside the TARDIS and is an analogue for the Doctor. In this scenario, there’s travel, adventure and technology. As Leadworth is Rory’s home, so is the TARDIS the Doctor’s. It speaks of excitement and thrills. The danger in this story is external, pseudo-scientific and oblique: a cold star threatening to freeze the TARDIS solid, with our heroes trapped inside. A cold, high place above the universe. So this scenario is a Doctor Who story by Christopher H Bidmead.

As much as Amy’s Choice is about showing us two types of suitor Amy’s attracted to and the internal conflict she’s grappling with, it’s also showing us two different ways of Doctor Who. Like flicking channels between a madcap alien invasion in an English village or a race against time in a doomed ship.

It’s Sliding Doors, isn’t it? But with Gwyneth Paltrow pursuing one lifetime living on The Pirate Planet and another in Castrovalva. Actually, that sounds immeasurably better than Sliding Doors. I need a parallel universe where Sliding Doors was like that! Then you could skip between two universes, one with the original Sliding Doors and one with my new Whoish version… and so it goes on until the whole thing has disappeared up its own causal nexus.

***

The third story being told here, is that of the Dream Lord. He’s a mysterious supernatural being with power over the TARDIS who wants to inflict mayhem on the lives of the Doctor and his companions by submitting them to a series of playful but deadly games of make believe. I suppose that viewed from that standpoint, the success of Amy’s Choice depends on how eager you were to see an updated, less racist version of The Celestial Toymaker.

The Dream Lord turns out to be one of Doctor Who’s favourite villainous archetypes; the twisted version of the Doctor himself. There’s enough to form Family Feud team – the Monk, the Master, the Valeyard, and now little old Dreamy. (“We asked 100 people what’s the most commonly used template for a Doctor Who villain! Survey says…”) It’s the most obvious kind of villain you can do, so it has to be wheeled out carefully and sparingly. Luckily, the Dream Lord’s a bit different from the rest of that dark clothed, maniacally cackling lot.

The Dream Lord’s point of difference from all these other dark Doctors is taunting. He spends the whole episode verbally tormenting the Doctor and his Ponds, needling away at every insecurity. The way he suddenly pops into being, just when our heroes are busy trying to do something, to hector and undermine them, is very unnerving; almost a visual representation of schizophrenia.

He also has a line in quotable, biting wit, particularly aimed at the Doctor. “The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first-year fashion student…”, the impish snide says, “I’m surprised you haven’t got a little purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” We’ve never heard anyone talk to the Doctor like that. And it hurts because it’s so very, very true.

But it’s also the trait which tips the Doctor off as to his tormentor’s true identity. As the Doctor, says “there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” So the Dream Lord is a personification of the Doctor’s self-loathing, and that’s something really new. Self-doubt, we’ve seen. But never the very human insecurity of criticising everything about yourself. It’s a novel twist on that conga line of wannabe Doctors.

So it’s a shame when he turns out to be nothing more than a speck of cosmic pollen with ideas above its station. He could have been a great returning villain, but instead he’s a figment of everyone’s imagination. Wasn’t too long ago we were randoming Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which has a similar, “it was all a dream” ending, and in both cases, the risk taken is that audience might think the whole affair inconsequential.

How Amy’s Choice manages to avoids the trap of seeming like a diverting but ultimately pointless fantasy, is that it has a real impact on our three heroes. The love triangle is resolved when Amy loses Rory thanks to the first of his many faux deaths. She decides she’ll do anything to have him back. She chooses home, not adventure. One fantasy has been exchanged for another.

LINK TO New Earth: nurses who would be doctors!

NEXT TIME… The Bells of Saint John are ringing.

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Bouncing, flouncing and New Earth (2006)

new earth

New Earth. New world. New Doctor. On one hand, that’s all this story is thinking about. We’ve got a shiny new Doctor and he’s much less angsty than the last one so let’s take him for a spin. Given that he spent much of his introductory episode convalescing, here is our first full date with the Tenth Doctor. While we’re at it, let’s go to an alien planet for the first time and meet some cat people.

Amongst all this newness, writer Russell T Davies brings us something old, flat and bitchy in the form of Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker, and lots of other people this ep). Cassandra is a vampy socialite, reduced, after too many plastic surgeries, to a piece of skin stretched out across a metal frame. That’s why the lady is a trampoline.

She’s her own canvas, but now she has the ability to jump out of her tautly pulled self and into other people. This not only gives Billie Piper and David Tennant the chance to ham it up for a few scenes but also cuts down nicely on the number of CGI shots needed. Showy, saucy and economical! John Nathan-Turner would have loved it.

Cassandra is a critique of the vacuous pursuit of physical beauty. RTD famously thought her up while watching plastic faced Hollywood actresses at award ceremonies. I like to imagine he turned to Julie Gardner at that moment, and giving his best JN-T impression said, “I think I’ve found my next Doctor Who villain.” And like the best villains, she’s howlingly funny, so she’s too good to lie in little pieces on the floor of Platform One. Her return seems like the standard victory lap we might expect from your funny, slightly odious guest villain. She’s this century’s Sil.

But RTD is too smart to just bring back a character this promising, just to let her do the same thing she did last episode. He lets her out of her frame, lets her bounce around inside Rose and flounce about inside the Doctor and even slum it for a moment inside one of this story’s infected human guinea pigs. But this last body swap has a transformative effect on her; she’s shocked by the loneliness and hopelessness of these germ farms. “They’re so alone,” she murmurs. “They keep reaching out, just to hold us. All their lives and they’ve never been touched.”

This newfound compassion follows her through her final body swap into henna tattooed underling Chip (Sean Gallagher). When he starts to expire from the sheer delight of finally having Cassandra, um, inside him, she finally accepts what the previous angsty Doctor said to her, that everything has its time and everyone dies. His preppy replacement is kinder. He takes her back to the last day that someone called her beautiful.

It’s a swanky party, full of tuxedoed men, who really should have dialogue but don’t. Turns out it’s herself encompassed inside Chip who tells younger her, encompassed inside Zoe Wanamaker, that she’s beautiful. And thus long before Steven Moffat has got his showrunners on, things have got all timey wimey.

But that’s not the thing. Here’s the thing. That the story of a bunch of cat nurses incubating every disease ever in a bunch of human lab rats (who should really have dialogue, but don’t) in order to cure a bunch of other humans, and the Doctor fixing everything with a magic switch is fine. But it’s Cassandra’s story which is really emotionally effective. And it’s so expertly hidden, only revealing itself right at the end of the episode. It’s what the story’s been about the whole time – that you can’t fight nature and you can’t preserve life at any cost. Sooner or later, it all catches up with you. It’s harsh and moving and far more interesting than events in a big ol’ space hospital.

*****

New Earth is brimming with confidence. It’s so sure than the combination of Tennant and Piper is going to be a massive hit. Which is remarkable when you think about… how annoyingly smug they are.

“Ooh, travelling with you, I just love it! Oooh, our first date, we had chips!” Ooh, put a sock in it, the pair of you. We romanceless nerds don’t tune into Doctor Who to watch date night in space. We certainly don’t want you with your perfect handsome/pretty loviness being rubbed in our faces!

I’m being flippant but actually, there’s something pretty seismic happening in New Earth with our perception of the Doctor. Tennant’s charm and good looks make the Doctor seem dateable for the first time. It’s no surprise that Rose and he are flirting and skipping about, reminiscing about chips. And when Cassandra inhabits the Doctor, she articulates the change in him pretty well. “Oo, he’s slim and a little bit foxy,” she purrs, confirming what the audience can already see. But then she calls Rose out: “You’ve thought so too. I’ve been inside your head. You’ve been looking. You like it.” We’ve positioned the Doctor, for the first time, as a potential suitor. That stripey brown suit of his? It’s made of boyfriend material.

Cassandra’s invitation for Rose, and for the audience, to view the Doctor as desirable, as a sexual object, is a first (with the possible exception of the TV Movie, I suppose). We take it for granted now, that the Doctor can actually be a love interest, since Tennant, Smith and Capaldi have had regular squeezes. It’s easy to overlook what a shift this was for the program. Eccleston, even though his interest in Rose, sealed with a big time vortexy smooch, was clearly signposted, somehow remained slightly avuncular. Tennant is the Doctor you want to randomly snog, as Cassandra does, because he happens to be there and you can. He’s the one you can safely admit to ogling. That never happened with Eccleston.

And because the perving and snogging and associated fascination is led by Cassandra and Rose, it’s a female gaze that New Earth is celebrating. It’s no wonder that so many female viewers (Mrs Spandrell included) joined the show when Tennant began his TARDIS tenancy. It’s not just that Tennant’s cute. It’s that we were, for the first time, invited to notice that the Doctor’s cute. “Do you like Doctor Who now?” I recall a bemused friend asking Mrs Spandrell back then. “Yes,” the old trouble and strife said. “Because the new Doctor is hot.

All of which leads us to a peculiar inversion regarding Cassandra. She was created as a reaction to how women are viewed and how they react physically to that. She ends up reversing that gaze onto the Doctor. Once he was her judge, jury and executioner. Now he’s her toyboy. It’s a very new world indeed.

LINK TO Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS: both have zombie-like monsters.

NEXT TIME: If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop. It’s time to ponder Amy’s Choice.

 

Friendly buttons, family dramas and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013)

jttcott

I once said to a fellow fan that I disliked stories which end too conveniently. I think I used Terror of the Autons as an example. Towards the end of that story, there are Autons everywhere. The Nestene is descending. All’s going to hell in a handbasket. Then the Doctor (or the Master, to be precise) flicks a switch, the Nestene’s repelled and all the Autons topple over. All too handy, I complained. The other fan looked at me beadily and said, “you must dislike a lot of Doctor Who stories then.”

He had a point. But ever since the show returned in 2005, the use of a narrative shortcut to drive us to the climax has become more prominent. It happens at about the 35 minute mark. Usually, it’s a near-miraculous catch all development that saves the day in about 5 minutes, no matter how widespread the problem, how many monsters there are or how desperate the situation has become. Usually, it come courtesy of a gadget, or a magical substance or a reversal of the bad guy’s own powers.

I call it the “magic switch”, meaning there’s often a big switch to throw to solve the story’s problem. But it’d be equally valid to call it a “big friendly button”.

What then to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which blatantly uses a big friendly button to conclude its story? Openly acknowledges it. Puts it on screen and gives it a name. Rarely has the series so boldly referenced its own narrative limitations. Why on earth draw attention to it? Unless writer Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat were looking for a wry in-joke. “We’ve now reached the point in the episode for the magic switch, so here it is!”

I think it’s more than self-knowing commentary. I think the big friendly button is a cry of defiance. “We know!” our authors seem to be saying. “Of course, we know. But you find a way to build up a big, bold adventure story, throw everything under the sun in it, and then wrap it up neatly in 5 mins. So sometimes we use a big friendly button. Get over it! We do that sometimes.”

*****

Ages ago, before he made 7 years of Doctor Who, the Moff once made comment on the classic show’s occasional over concentration on the TARDIS as a setting for stories. “We kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe,” he confidently declared.

But then, of course, there’s this episode, where we explore the wardrobe extensively. In the pre-publicity, the Moff declared how he’d loved and now wanted to emulate the TARDIS tour section of The Invasion of Time, indicating a change of tune about the whole Narnia/wardrobe divide. I can understand the appeal. With an extensive world within the TARDIS, there’s a world of potential adventure in their too.

Stories which use the labyrinthine TARDIS corridors as a location apply slightly different emphases each time. The Invasion of Time uses it as the setting for a hunt/chase sequence. Castrovalva uses it as a confounding maze which ensnares unwary travelers. Way back in Inside the Spaceship it was not so much vast as claustrophobic, a place which played tricks on the mind. The same all the years later in The Doctor’s Wife, where it also became a mental torture chamber for Amy and Rory.

It’s all of these things in JTTCOTT. But what it never feels like is the slow perilous climb down into the heart of the ship which the title suggests. It feels a bit like bait and switch, because the suggestion is that it’ll be a Jules Verne-style descent into the core of the beast, facing peril as our heroes break through each stratum.

Instead, it feels much more random and disjointed; not a descent deep into the craft as The Invasion of Time and Castrovalva felt like, but a journey twisting and turning in all sorts of directions. And maybe that’s appropriate, because can a multi-dimensional time ship be said to have a centre at all? Still, it doesn’t feel like a journey to anywhere in particular, but with a lot of interesting sightseeing along the way.

****

Our companions on this meandering expedition are the Van Baalen brothers: Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and Tricky (Jahvel Hall). Roughead salvage collectors, this story is the backdrop to a family drama which unfolds. It turns out that following an industrial accident, Tricky has been fooled into believing that he’s an android by Gregor. As an example of a commitment to gullibility in the face of easily accessible evidence, it’s right up there with Guy Crawford’s needless eyepatch and Countess Scarlioni’s alien marriage.

Gregor initially tries to pass it off as a joke that got a little out of hand, but later confesses he did it out of jealousy for their father’s respect. There are a couple of problems with this besides the simple straining of credulity. Firstly, the Van Baalen boys are sadly not interesting enough for us to care about their, admittedly unusual, inter-family dramas. Secondly, said dramas have nothing to do with the predicament at hand. When Gregor eventually fesses up to Tricky in a spare moment between set pieces, it should be a major revelation. But Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) who is a silent observer to this exchange, is leaning against a wall with a look that says, “and this effects me exactly how?”

****

But then, if any of this, or anything else about JTTCOTT bothers you, worry not – because none of it ever happened. Our big friendly button not only brought this story to a close, it also reset the whole affair. This kind of ending worries me more than the magic switch. If the story’s events were so inconsequential they can be erased at a moment’s notice – why were they worth watching in the first place?

All that’s left is a couple of Wizard of Oz style moments where characters kind of remember something happening to them, but can’t recall why. The Van Baalen brothers might even, if you squint, be stand-ins for the Tin Man (Tricky), the brainless scarecrow (Bram) and the cowardly lion (Gregor).  The Doctor, I suppose, has been our Wizard and Clara our Dorothy, although as I recall, Dorothy never got chased by time burnt zombie creatures and Clara doesn’t even have a little dog. And The Wizard of Oz didn’t hang around in the vehicle that transports its heroes to the site of the story. We kids want Oz, not the cyclone-borne farmhouse.

Or something like that. *Presses big friendly button*

LINK TO Planet of Fire: Companions with things burnt into their skin!

NEXT TIME: Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! We’re checking in for treatment on New Earth.

Stories, swimwear and Planet of Fire (1984)

planet of fire

Put aside, for a moment, the standard line on this story: that its main distinguishing feature is its requirement to incorporate a lengthy wishlist of script elements – your writing out of him, your introducing her, and your specified location of the other. Forget all that, and without reference to Wikipedia, see if you can answer this question:

What is Planet of Fire about?

No, go on, I’ll wait.

If you’re like me (lucky, lucky you), although you’ve watched Planeta de Fuego many times, you’re never quite sure what story it’s trying to tell. I think the reason is, it’s trying to tell several stories at once, and none are the dominant one. There’s lots going on – most of it interesting and well played, but the central dramatic idea behind the story, whatever it is, is lost. Let’s try to find it.

Perhaps it’s that a community needs to be rescued from an impending volcanic eruption, but is paralysed by religious superstition. This has real dramatic potential, but it’s played and directed like the cast and crew are on a leisurely holiday somewhere picturesque and summery. No one acts as if they’re sitting on a geological time bomb, even though they talk about it a lot. Compare this to Inferno, which has a similar underlying threat that permeates the whole thing with tension and a sense of doom.

Or perhaps it’s that a mad zealot is trying to gain control of his society so he can execute anyone he pleases, ostensibly in the name of religion but clearly for power’s sake. Again, not a bad plot and one which can and has been the basis of Doctor Who stories from The Aztecs to The Curse of Peladon. And there’s no doubt that Timanov (Peter Wyngarde) is as bad an egg as that long line of high priests ever produced; listen to him speak in his opening scene, justifying how he incinerates people. “It’s still a wise precaution to send the occasional free-thinker to the flames,” he opines to new apprentice Malkon (Edward Highmore), while strolling around some 1980s version of an AirBnB, complete with exotic ceiling sculptures.“It can be a rewarding experience for those consumed in the flames. Unbelievers are such unhappy souls.”

I mean, the guy’s a monster. He should clearly be the story’s villain, but in fact, he gets treated more sympathetically as the story goes on. This man who sides with the bad guy, dismisses any view which is contrary to his and, most tellingly burns people alive is basically humoured for four episodes and then asked to stick around because he can get stuff organised.

His punishment is having his religion disproven in front of his eyes, but when this happens, he does nothing to redeem himself for all the deaths he’s caused in the name of a bloke in a silver jumpsuit. He just gets forgotten about, disappearing between scenes. He got off lightly. By rights, he should die in the flames trying to stop the Master, but no, he just wanders off. Even Old Hepesh got savaged by a bear.

Perhaps this story is about the Master (Anthony Ainley), seeking to heal himself. The problem is here, that it needs some connection to the plight of the Sarns. The simplest way would be to make the Master’s renewal spark a process which would cause the death of everyone else (like, say, oh I don’t know, a volcanic explosion maybe?), thereby posing a moral threat which the Master wouldn’t care about but the Doctor (Peter Davison) would.

The other thing about the Master’s story is that the stakes should be higher. He should be on death’s door, and the healing fire of Sarn should be a last desperate gamble. But no, the problem’s more comical than that; the problem is that he’s shrunk himself to the size of a particularly gamey mouse. So instead of Peri (Nicola Bryant) stumbling on a cadaverous ghoul of a man, hiding in his TARDIS, she ends up chasing him around with her shoe. I mean, it’s funny, but screamingly odd.

Or perhaps it’s Turlough’s (Mark Strickson) story, one of homecoming and former sins redeemed. And it kind of is, but again, we get no real sense of what’s at stake. Would Turlough die if his fellow Trions came to save the Sarns? Or would his natural treachery mean he’d be tempted to let everyone die a fiery death as long as he could escape? Over at Flight Through Entirety (which you should definitely be listening to, if you’re not already), they made the interesting point that when Turlough calls in the Trions, he makes the same choice as the Doctor in The War Games. But there, we knew the Doctor was desperately terrified and the Time Lords punished him for his old crimes. Here, a man in a green jumpsuit simply tells Turlough that everyone’s moved on while he’s been away.

The truth is, Planet of Fire is telling all these stories at once, rather than emphasising the one with the most potential to grip its viewers. There’s something about this story – perhaps its light touch direction, or its wordy script – that consistently underplays its dramatic elements and robs it of focus. It has so much to say that it constantly stumbles over its words.

But y’know what though?

I rather love it.

I love that the production team travels half way around the world to film in a new, exotic quarry. I love that it’s sunny for once, so suddenly everyone starts taking their clothes off. Between shirtless Howard (Dallas Adams), bikini clad Peri and Turlough (of all people) in his sluggos, the show has suddenly gone all pervy. No doubt sexual appetites of all varieties were awakened in the show’s many teenage viewers.

I love that Kamelion, an awkward silver mannequin, which can barely stand up and no-one knows how to operate, gets a proper, pathos-filled farewell story rather than a throwaway line about having dropped him off to study graphology or something, because it’s an official companion now and we write out companions properly, dammit. And I love how everyone without fail is wearing too much eyeliner. The Master won’t even have to touch up his until The Doctor Falls.

And I love Davison, dashing in his shirt sleeves and question mark braces (best not to wonder about his sluggos. They’re probably smothered in question marks). Properly frustrated with Turlough’s secrecy. Properly invested in getting the Sarns to safety, while matter of factly scaring the daylights out of them (when talking about the volcanic vents the Sarns uses as shortcuts, he says, coolly, “It’s the same route the molten lava will take to burn you alive.”).

But most of all, I love that moment of shocked realisation after he watches the Master, his oldest friend, being burned alive by a trap he set. He stands at the TARDIS console, saying nothing, but clearly stunned and dismayed. As gentle and as moving a moment as any in the show’s history. There’s Davison, 90 mins from leaving the show, and still striving it make it more than strangely named white men in quarries wearing too much eyeliner.

In that single moment, there are the multiple complexities of the Doctor’s friendships; with the Master, Turlough, Kamelion and now Peri. And the revelation that those looking for easy answers – a magic flame, a benevolent god or running away from your past – will always be disappointed. Perhaps that’s what Planet of Fire’s about.

LINK TO Oxygen: critically injured Time Lords.

NEXT TIME: Buckle up for a Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS.

Blindness, business and Oxygen (2017)

oxygen

Long term readers will recall my pathetic attempts to predict what’s going to happen in Doctor Who. Previously, I’ve expected David Tennant to become a power mad despot and Missy to be Romana. So far, so wildly inaccurate. But there was some mild excitement earlier in the year, when something I suggested in a post about, of all things, The Doctor’s Daughter, came to pass during series 10. On that occasion I said:

What else might have a chance of disrupting the Doctor’s world? Could, for instance, he incur a disability of some kind? What would, for instance, a blind Doctor be like for a couple of stories, or even a series?

Now, thanks be to Moff, we know. In mid season thriller Oxygen, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is blinded and stays that way through the next two episodes. He does it saving companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) from suffocation in deep space and there’s no quick and easy reset switch for this problem.

Although there is a workaround. In Extremis, the Doctor learns to rely on his sonic sunglasses, which give him an onscreen readout piped straight into his brain. It’s only a partial fix; he still needs confidante Nardole (Matt Lucas) to give voice to self-knowing lines like, “oh look, it’s a mysterious light, shining round a corner, approximately ten feet away.” So really, I should have guessed what would happen to the show with a blind Doctor; the dialogue suddenly sounds like Big Finish.

It also means certain scenarios have to be meticulously constructed. Consider the tricksy climax to The Pyramid at the End of the World. The Doctor has concocted a way of destroying a deadly virus by blowing up the room it’s encased in. Problem is, he’s trapped on the wrong side of a locked door. He knows the combination to the lock, but he can’t see it. Time is running out and he’s helpless.

To make this situation work, though, there has to be a very particular number pad attached to this lock. It has to have no raised numbers or braille which the Doctor could feel. It can’t be electronic, which could register on the sonic sunglasses. It has to run horizontally across; if it was a standard 4×3 pad the Doctor could deduce the placement of the numbers. And it has to be out of view of the Doctor’s new friend Erica, so he can’t be guided to the answer.

So I don’t know about the Doctor’sblindnesss bring to the series that element of disruption. But it certainly meant a lot of contrivance.

But hey, don’t let me be churlish about this. I think it’s still a welcome and innovative development for the series. And as I’ve said before, finding new things for the show to do is hard. But it would have been nice is the Doctor’s blindness was presented as something more than a constant obstacle to be overcome. What did the Doctor learn from the experience? Was their any upside at all? Wouldn’t it have been great if the Doctor could have defeated the mummified Monks using some skill or insight he gained from being blind?

*****

Anyway, none of this is being very fair to Oxygen, a taut and nervy episode about the fragility of human life in space. It owes a considerable debt to Gravity, the 2014 blockbuster in which Sandra Bullock persevered through an increasingly unlikely but nonetheless nerve wracking series of misadventures in space. In its original conception, Oxygen was to be about the Doctor and co jumping from spaceship to spaceship, which is exactly what happens in Gravity, where Bullock’s character strives to survive an orbital calamity and get back to Earth.

Both take their starting points from how inimical space is to human survival, to jolt us out of our usual unthinking acceptance of other sci-fi conveniences like artificial gravity, omnipresent oxygen, consistent atmospheric pressure, lack of radiation and doors that go shuck shuck. It’s nice to be reminded of all these cosmic realities, but give us a few episodes and we’ve forgotten the lot; compare this careful approach to realism with the giant magical layer cake which is the spaceship in World Enough and Time.

Even though it’s temporary, Oxygen’s concern that everything outside our biosphere’s ready to kill us is a good starting point for a story that races from one predicament to the next with barely time to draw precious breath. Along the way, it will, ahem, breathlessly tell a story about an unseen, unfeeling corporate entity, killing a space station’s crew as an efficiency measure. Cue one of Doctor Who’s long standing tropes, big business as the baddy. Oxygen’s ruthless but nameless “Company” could be the same one as featured in The Sun Makers or Terminus. There are no distinguishing features; its placement of profit over people is enough for us to recognise the stereotype.

In the Company’s modus operandi, you can see the reflection of a couple of contemporary concerns: that we’ll all lose our jobs as robots take over (look, for instance, at that scene of the occupant-free suit moving boxes around, without care nor paycheque) and AI will outwit us all in the end (sinister satnav gets another run). But the added sting in this tale is that the company’s ruthless commercialism is constantly apparent. Not just that it sells oxygen, the very stuff of life, in an environment where you can’t do without it. But also because it knows the marginal cost of maintaining the life of one crew member is more than that of murdering them. The most heinous of sums. That’s far more frightening than a troupe of dead men walking in animated suits.

Still, it makes the Doctor’s solution to the problem very neat. He just has to change one of the factors in that sum, and make it more expensive to kill the humans than keep them alive. It’s elegant, and rather heartbreaking when in response, the corpse-carrying suits hand over their remaining oxygen to the survivors. It’s an ending which works so well thematically, it’s hard to forgive the terrible cheat of pretending to kill Bill. Just keep her alive and leave her with the Doctor and co, racing against time, zombies breathing down their necks… that’s enough to make us hold our breaths.

****

Now weirdly enough, I’m on a roll with this prediction lark. Along with the Doctor’s blindness I also managed to predict a Capaldi/Bradley mash up. Unbelievable! I see no reason to stop now, but I’ll stick to some safer ground.  So hear are some not-so-bold predictions. In Doctor Who, capitalism will always be bad. Monsters will always stomp. Crew members will always be forgettable cannon fodder. And bringing scares to the small screen will remain Doctor Who’s lifeblood, as essential as oxygen.

LINK TO The Tomb of the Cybermen. Mechanical bad guys.

NEXT TIME: I’m not spending all afternoon exploring a Cro-Magnon cave with some octogenarian from Miami Beach. Instead I’m spending it on a Planet of Fire.

 

Women, men and The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)

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Here’s a story which has taken a long and winding path. Fondly remembered from its original screening, then lost for 25 years. Found in Hong Kong and rush-released to an eager fandom, some who found it matched every rosy memory they’d ever had, some who found it disappointingly hokey.

Some subsequent critical analyses found it lacking; the plot sags in the middle, the Doctor’s (Patrick Troughton) modus operandi is illogical and its attitude to race is highly suspect. But still, it commands affection, scoring highly in various polls. Steven Moffat still loves it and talks about it all the time. Famously, it’s the story that turned Matt Smith into a gushing fan. We’ve been around the block with this one.

Me, I came to it in 1992, like so many others. I bought it on VHS, even though my family didn’t own a VCR to play it on.(My mother, always suspicious of television, having read an alarmist book on its effect on children, luridly titled The Plug-in Drug, only had a TV set in our house under sufferance, to borrow a phrase from Tomb. The thought of shelling out for a machine which recorded TV programs for repeat viewings was a bridge too far.) So I rented a VCR for a weekend. God knows how many times I watched that tape that weekend. Etching it into my memory.

What a glorious thing watching a previously missing episode for the first time is. That sense of utter amazement at what you’re seeing. And how equally amazing that it’s become a periodic treat for Doctor Who fans in the 25 years since Tomb was found and rushed into our homes. Tomb, The Lion, Day of Armageddon, Air Lock, The Underwater Menace 2 and most stunningly The Enemy of the World and nearly all of The Web of Fear. Those exhilarating days when you hit play and watch long lost Who. May there be many more.

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So raking over the ashes of Tomb is something we’ve been doing for a long time. Every frame of it has been pored over and no doubt by undertaking that detailed look, we’re also trying to recapture some of the magic of that first, revelatory viewing. But here’s something I don’t see talked about much: among its towering monsters, tangled storyline and bad guys with foreign accents and dark skin, it’s a peculiar place to find an old fashioned battle of the sexes.

That we only get two female characters – tremulous new companion Victoria (Deborah Watling) and exotic villainess Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) – is a stereotypical norm, hardly surprising for 60s Doctor Who. But there’s also the funny positioning of how a woman should behave. In The Tomb of the Cybermen, of all things.

Victoria develops a sparring relationship with Captain Hopper (George Roubicek) who clearly thinks Victoria is too mouthy for his conception of femininity. “Who’d be a woman?” complains Victoria at one stage, having been prohibited from heading down to the Cybermen’s subterranean tombs. “How would you know, honey?” he snaps back.

Such a strange observation about Victoria, who this story positions as the terrified female of so much pulp fiction; worried about what to wear, potentially frightened by the TARDIS taking off, needing to be coaxed and chaperoned into the adventure itself. Suddenly, she’s so pushy she’s not even female anymore? Not to worry, it’s not long before she reverts to type and needs to be rescued from something.

Except that she gets her own back on Hopper later on, saying sarcastically to him, “It’s comforting to know that we have your superior strength to call on, should we need it.” Apart from being a very strange thing for Victoria to say, it’s part of a macho strain running through Tomb, where male characters are judged and needled about their physical strength.

It starts with a light-hearted moment, where Jamie (Frazer Hines) finds himself unable to open the doors to the tomb. Embarrassed, he claims, “well, I’ve no’ had much exercise lately!”, to which the Doctor archly replies, “Quite.” Muscleman Toberman (Roy Stewart) is on hand to take over and succeeds at this feat of strength, where Jamie, no slouch in the physical fitness department, failed.

Later on, chief whiner Viner (Cyril Shaps) is similarly taunted about his lack of brawn. When investigating the restoration room with Kaftan, she tells him that she’s sent Toberman away. “We do not need any other protection now that you are with us,” she says, with a subtle but loaded squeeze of his bicep. At once, she positions the women as needing protection and Viner as the one to supply it. But Viner is a slight, weedy chap. It’s clear the comment is meant to undermine him.

Why all this focus on whether men are physically strong or not? Perhaps it’s simply part of the boy’s own adventure theme of this story. Or perhaps it’s related to the fact that there are two feats of male strength which will bring the story to its climax: Toberman’s defeat of the Cyber Controller (Michael Kilgariff) in single combat and his shutting of the tomb’s doors. It’s odd that a story which is meant to be about intelligence and logic, hinges on the physical prowess of blokes.

Back to our lady friends and we still have Kaftan to deal with. She’s clearly the Lady Macbeth of the piece, as she’s the one who has to strategise on behalf of fellow conspirator Klieg (George Pavell). Even though he’s supposed to be the master planner, it’s her who has to constantly pull him into line and tell him which bit to do next. She’s also the one who has the money to fund the expedition in the first place, so in many ways she’s a powerful instigator within the story.

She’s a strong, influential presence in the story; no one taunts her about her gender, as she does to others. She’s also a figure of devotion by Toberman. It’s his fury at her death at the hands of the Cybemen which provokes him to defeat them. And in a way, it’s a failure of that physical power that he has such a glut of. He was meant to protect her, in both the literal sense that he’s her bodyguard, and in the thematic position this story takes that that’s what men are supposed to do. He’s basically made impotent; all he can do now is destroy.

So who’d be a man? Who’d be a woman? And what does it mean to be either? Amidst all the thrills and spills of Doctor Who’s adventures underground with Cybermen, here’s a story that wants to talk about gender roles. Maybe not in a very sophisticated way, but still it’s there.

This is why we’re still examining and debating Tomb after all these years. Because despite it being a familiar and straightforward story, there’s still lots of it to unearth.

LINK TO The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang: Subterranean Cybermen.

NEXT TIME… Space. The final frontier. We take a big gulp of Oxygen.

ADDENDUM: How would you know, honey?

Over on Twitter, two learned Whoheads, Will Brooks and Darth Egregious have pointed out something about the “how would you know, honey?” exchange referenced above. I’ve read this moment to be Hopper having a dig at Victoria’s ladylike-ness for being too mouthy. Both these guys have read it as a reference to her age, saying Hopper is pointing out that Victoria’s still a girl. Which has led me to consider the question, how old is Victoria meant to be?

As far as I can tell, her age is never mentioned on screen. Deborah Watling was 19 when The Evil of the Daleks entered production, so we could suppose that Victoria is the same age. Moreover, there are a few other indications that she’s an adult, albeit a young one, rather than a child.

Firstly, she’s a replacement companion for Polly, who was an adult character. While this in itself doesn’t prove anything, we know that the production team was looking for another young woman (rather than a girl) to be the new companion, because their first choice was Pauline Collins as Sam. Again, they could have changed tack after Collins declined the offer to join the show, but it does seem that the production team wasn’t planning on matching Troughton and Hines with a child.

Secondly, Victoria’s subsequent stories position her as character with sex appeal. In The Ice Warriors, Jamie jokes with her about wearing more revealing clothing. In The Enemy of the World, she’s frequently referred to as Jamie’s girlfriend. Again, it proves nothing definitively, but it’s to be hoped that the show saw her as above the age of consent and wasn’t deliberately sexualising an underage girl.

Finally, if the line was meant to signify that Victoria’s a child, why isn’t it “how would you know, kid?” or something similar? The use of the word “honey” is a little more suggestive of a romantic relationship. And that fits better with Hopper and Victoria’s ongoing sniping at each other throughout Tomb.

So as far as I can work out, Victoria’s an adult and Hopper’s line is a kind of eye-rolling snark to a woman being too argumentative for his taste. Think I’m on the wrong track? Comment away!

Zeg, Tarrant and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (2010)

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TARRANT: Dalek Zeg! We had best get on with organising this alliance of alien races for our latest campaign against the Doctor.

ZEG: Oh, bugger it! How did we get lumbered with this, Dalek Tarrant? I’ve already been doing overtime on the redesign of our casings!

TARRANT: Yes, and look how well that went down, Zeg.

ZEG: It was going fine till they made me add that hump on the back.

TARRANT: Anyway… what we need is an alliance of alien badasses that will scare the etheric beam locators off anyone who dares to question the might of the Daleks!

ZEG: Don’t we already have an alliance, lying about the place somewhere?

TARRANT: We used to have one, but it was pissweak. Remember? There was that spiny faced guy…

ZEG: Oh that’s right. And the seaweed in a big robe.

TARRANT: That big black Christmas tree…

ZEG: And that guy covered in half globes! He looked ridiculous!

TARRANT: So none of those numpties get invited again.

ZEG: All right, who do you want for this lot then?

TARRANT: Well, the Nestene Consciousness, I suppose, ‘cos we’re going to need duplicates.

ZEG: Wait a minute, don’t we make duplicates?

TARRANT: Yes, though lately ours have tended to have eye stalks erupt from their foreheads at inappropriate moments.

ZEG: Fair enough, it’s a terrible giveaway. Who else have you got?

TARRANT: Um, the Cybermen?

ZEG: Ooh, that’s going to be totes awks.

TARRANT: Why do you say that, Dalek Zeg?

ZEG: A few years back they proposed an alliance to us. And we exterminated their arses.

TARRANT: They won’t care.

ZEG: They might!

TARRANT: No, they literally won’t care. They can’t, remember? That’s their whole thing.

ZEG: OK, who else you got?

TARRANT: The Sontarans?

ZEG: Ugh. I don’t get those fuckers. They’re supposed to completely obsessed with that “interminable war with the Rutans” TM. But then they’re always getting involved in these other hijinks. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll jump at the idea. Anything to avoid actually prosecuting that war they’re meant to be a part of.

TARRANT: Silurians?

ZEG: Those lizard things? That’s going to be pain. We’re going to have to wake them up. Have you got a big drill or a cyclotron or something? Then we’ll have to explain the whole thing to them… They’ll want to do their whole, “kill all the apes and reclaim our planet” routine… On the other hand, they’re on their home planet, so we won’t need to pay their per diems.

TARRANT: Judoon?

ZEG: Didn’t you already say them?

TARRANT: No, I said Sontarans.

ZEG: What’s the difference?

TARRANT: Not a great deal. But the Judoon have better boots.

ZEG: Oh they’re the police ones, aren’t they? I’m not sure they’re going to want to be in a kind of super group of villains.

TARRANT: Sycorax?

ZEG: Those guys in the big flying rock? Jeez, if you want. None of that voodoo bullshit though. Just let ‘em stand at the back and keep quiet.

TARRANT: The Hoix?

ZEG: The who?

TARRANT: The Weevils?

ZEG: You’re just making shit up now.

TARRANT: Terileptils, Zygons, Chelonians, Drahvins…

ZEG: The Drahvins? Oh come on, I draw the fucking line. A bunch of skinny chicks with elaborate eye make up? Fat lot of use they’ll be. Are they bringing their special magnetic net?

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg, I sense you are not approaching this task constructively.

ZEG: Give me a fucking break, Tarrant. The bloody Drahvins? What a bunch of b-listers. It’ll be the freaking Slitheen next.

TARRANT: Well, actually…

ZEG: Seriously? Why not call the Bandrils? I hear they’ve been free since about 1985. What about the Vardans? I bet we can get the Krotons for equity minimum. Ooh, no I’ve got it… the Monoids! With their cattle prods of doom!

TARRANT: If this is the sort of attitude you brought to the redesign of our casings Zeg, I can see how we ended up looking like giant M&Ms.

ZEG: What’s all this in aid of anyway?

TARRANT: Well, it appears that the Doctor is going to bring about the end of the Universe.

ZEG: Hey, that’s our job!

TARRANT: I know, right? So we’ve got to prevent him from being able to do it.

ZEG: How so?

TARRANT: We’ll lock him in a big box.

ZEG: Genius. Where is this box?

TARRANT: Stonehenge.

ZEG: Um, why?

TARRANT: Well, a scenario has been constructed from the memories of the Doctor’s companion.

ZEG: And she once went to Stonehenge?

TARRANT: No, she liked Roman occupied Britain when she was a kid, and it’s kind of close by. Plus, she likes the box thing, so there’s that as well.

ZEG: But wait a minute, we think this will ensure the Doctor shows up?

TARRANT: It’s a trap the Doctor cannot resist!

ZEG: It just sounds a bit complicated, Tarrant. If we want the Doctor to show up, why don’t we just do something evil? He’s turned up every other time we’ve done that. Without bloody fail!

TARRANT: Yeah, it would be simpler but we just don’t have anything on the drawing board that’s ready to go.

ZEG: OK, so what’s the plan once the Doctor is inevitably drawn to this devious trap?

TARRANT: Well, we shove him in the box.

ZEG: And then?

TARRANT: That’s it.

ZEG: Right. It suddenly goes from hugely complicated to sort of alarmingly simple. And what do all the other alliance members do?

TARRANT: Well the Nestene duplicates…

ZEG: Which we could at a pinch supply ourselves….

TARRANT: Well, they’ll actually put him in the box. Bit hard with the old plungers, y’see.

ZEG: OK, and everyone else?

TARRANT: They just sort of turn up for a gloat.

ZEG: Right. Tarrant, you remember the last time we had an alliance? Remember what our alliance members did then?

TARRANT: Um yeah. They stood around a big desk for a bit. Then they went to a conference and clapped idiosyncratically. Then some of them betrayed us and had to be exterminated. And then we got bored of them and locked them all up.

ZEG: And none of them were strictly speaking necessary either were they?

TARRANT: Not critically, no.

ZEG: Tarrant, this is the dumbest thing we have ever done.

TARRANT: Says the Dalek who painted us the united colours of Benetton.

ZEG: Fair enough. Shall we just exterminate each other now?

TARRANT: Agreed.

*Ka-shoom! Screen goes negative*

LINK TO The Claws of AxosPresumably the Axons are in this formidable bunch of alien badasses somewhere. (With thanks to Will Brooks

NEXT TIME: Mercy, just look at this place. We unearth The Tomb of the Cybermen.

 

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