Inflexibility, impossibility and The Day of the Doctor (2013)

Fans sometimes talk about Doctor Who‘s infinitely flexible format. This is the show which can go anywhere and do anything. When an anniversary year comes around though, we discover this isn’t as true as we might like to think.

It’s all the fault of The Three Doctors really. It laid down a template for anniversary stories which ever since has been too good to resist. Multi Doctors, uniting against one enormous threat. Then The Five Doctors took it even further. Returning Doctors plus returning companions and lots of returning monsters.

The reunion episode is a TV staple, and on any other show, you could do it as often as you like. On ordinary shows, characters can age, and you can pick up with them years after their last TV appearance. You find out what ever happened to them, you try to guess which ones have had plastic surgery, it’s all good fun.

But Doctor Who can’t do that because each of the Doctors is meant to be ageless. We saw each of them turn into another of them, before they got old and creaky. Reunion shows doomed forever. Flexible format, my foot! The Day of the Doctor is bogged down in a format it inherited from Old Who and which was, by 2013, almost impossible to use.

Because here’s the problem. What other possible shape could the show’s 50th anniversary episode take? It’s very difficult to imagine it not being a multi Doctor story, because that’s what Doctor Who anniversaries are. And it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t at least acknowledge each actor to play the title role.

Steven Moffat knew this. More than that, he wanted this – and more. He wanted every single Doctor joining forces to save Gallifrey from the Daleks. It’s testament to his ingenuity and determination that he made this happen. Despite three Doctors being dead, four looking significantly different to their Doctorly prime and one flatly refusing to participate.

But that Moff is clever. He takes an impossible format and makes it work. How did he do it?

First, he makes this a story about the Doctor and the biggest day of his life. Think of how different an approach this is to The Three and Five Doctors, where the multiple Doctors simply come out to play, just to have an adventure. Setting this story on the last day of the Time War, gives it an event worth watching, not just a chance to rival Doctors squabble. It’s an event big enough for this biggest of episodes.

Secondly, John Hurt. Every anniversary story’s been short its full quota of Doctors, and each has come up with inventive ways around the problem. But Moffat’s is the most audacious. Without Christopher Eccleston, he needs a Doctor upon whom to shoulder the story’s moral core – the redemption of the Doctor post his Time War atrocity. At a pinch, it could have been Paul McGann. But in search of a marquee name to hang out the front his 50th anniversary, the Moff creates an entirely new and hitherto unheard of Doctor and has him played by a movie star.

Think the Doctor is a tough role to play? Pah, step aside children. Hurt is instantly right in the part, creating, as McGann did 17 years earlier, a fully formed Doctor in about an hour. There’s a lovely bit somewhere in all the associated behind the scenes material about this story, where Doctors Smith and Tennant giggle like naughty schoolboys about their own acting deficiencies compared to Hurt. Smith says he’s busy pulling faces like mad, when all John Hurt has to do is look, and the shot’s in the can.

It would have been great to have Eccleston back. But if he hadn’t said no, we wouldn’t have got Hurt. And it gives The Day of the Doctor the chance to say something new about its lead character; that there was a time when he strayed from the path and became everything a Doctor shouldn’t be.  It’s another way in which Moffat breathes life back into the anniversary show format, by asking that question he loves to ask: Doctor Who? Who is this man and what has shaped him? It’s more introspective than any other multi-Doctor stories to date.

Finally, he plays fast and loose with the structure of a Doctor Who story. You’d be well within your rights to expect a villain of some sort to turn up in the biggest Doctor Who story ever. You might be wondering where the final showdown is, with the Doctors squaring off with some big arse Time Lord baddy, as per Three and Five. Instead Moffat gives us two alien invasions – the Zygons on Earth and the Daleks in the skies above Gallifrey- but boldly keeps these on the sidelines. The main question posed is not, “will the Doctors win?”, but “can the Doctor heal himself?”

The answer turns out to be, “yes, but only if we completely retcon the new series”. Moffat is unafraid of such bold, sweeping moves. In The Big Bang, he completely reverses the whole of Series 5. In The Wedding of River Song, he negates an alternative timeline. He’s used to travelling back to a crucial point in history, and just changing it. Time, remember, can be rewritten.

So in one fell swoop, he changes the outcome of the Time War, saves Gallifrey from destruction and absolves the Doctor of his crimes. It’s a resetting of the show along the lines of the classic series. The Doctor’s no longer a war criminal, Gallifrey’s in the heavens and all’s right with the world. Plus he manages to rope in all thirteen of the Doctor’s to help, in a smorgasbord of archive footage, vocal impersonations and impressive eyebrows.

Oddly enough though, here he’s on much more traditional anniversary story ground. The Three Doctors ended with the end of the Doctor’s earthly exile. Reset! The Five Doctors ended with the Doctor on the run from his own people again. Reset! And here, a new start, unburdened by the weight of the Time War, which the series has dragged around since 2005.

All delivered in 3D, in cinemas and a guest appearance by Tom Baker. So hats off to the Moff. Upon being told there were no toys left in the toybox, he held a kickass party anyway. And rewrote Doctor Who along the way. Yeah, that’s how he did it.

LINK TO Resurrection of the Daleks: the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey threatened in Resurrection finally happens.

NEXT TIME: The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God. We do the Devil’s work with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

Dialogue, Sawardese and Resurrection of the Daleks (1984)

Could you pick a Doctor Who story’s writer from watching it with its credits lopped off? Well, you and I could of course, because we’ve got honorary PhDs in Who from Murwillumbah TAFE. But if for some reason, a new, unseen script fell through a vent in the space-time continuum, without its writers credit, could you pick the author?

I think I could do it with Eric Saward, script editor and writer throughout the 1980s. And his 1984 action fest, Resurrection of the Daleks is written in pure Sawardese. I thought I’d pull out a few examples, as part of my post Doctoral research at Wagga Wagga Institute of Technology. So here are:

Seven Saward Signature Dialogue Tells.

  1. The short, heavily laden question.

Saward has a particular prose style which can be brutally efficient, the grammar of which is so at pains to be correct, it’s awkward.  (Not unlike that last sentence.)

Consider his habit of giving characters concise, frank questions to elicit a response from another character. Often these questions try to fit in both a descriptive noun and and active verb. “The escape was prevented?” is an example. The line could be, “everything worked out fine” or “no harm was done”. But in Saward’s style, we find out two things: there was an escape and it failed. In one super efficient question!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like something anyone would actually say. See also, “you have the Doctor?” And “you fear an attack?”. And my personal favourite, from The Mark of the Rani, “you suspect another motive?”

  1. Answer one question with another.

Resurrection starts this way.

STEIN: Which way?

GALLOWAY: Does it matter?

It’s particularly useful when you want to avoid giving an answer.

STEIN: Where’ve they gone?

GALLOWAY: Where’d you think?

But it’s more likely to be used as a kind of sarcastic rejoinder.

STEIN: Is it dead?

DOCTOR: Would you care to take another look?

Here’s a famous example from The Caves of Androzani.

PERI: Doctor?

DOCTOR: You were expecting someone else?

Is this naturalistic dialogue? (You’d venture another opinion?!)

  1. Neither fever.

This one actually doesn’t turn up in Resurrection, which is remarkable because it’s widespread among stories written or script edited by Saward. It’s the habit of characters presenting the two sides a dilemma, with the second line starting with ‘neither’. Again, grammatically correct, but very clunky. The classic one’s in Revelation of the Daleks.

GRIGORY: You can’t rush this sort of thing.

NATASHA: Neither can we hang around here.

Here’s one from Earthshock.

DOCTOR: You must withdraw your men, they don’t stand a chance.

BRIGGS: Neither will we if those things get up here.

Eventually, Saward seems to be narkily correcting the grammar in other people’s scripts. From Planet of Fire:

FOSTER: Sure isn’t Greek.

CURT: Neither is it Roman.

From The Mysterious Planet:

BALAZAR: It would be murder to kill them.

MERDEEN: Neither can I free them.

From Mindwarp:

DOCTOR: They weren’t hanging about.

PERI: Neither did they look very pleased.

I’d written this off as one of Saward’s idiosyncrasies. So imagine my delight when an corker example of Neither Fever turned up in Doomsday.

ROSE: You didn’t need to kill him!

DALEK: Neither did we need him alive!

Who would have thought it? Russell T Davies channeling Eric Saward!

  1. Something, isn’t it?

The go to line of dialogue when a character really has nothing to say. “Big, isn’t it?” is the gem of a line Turlough got to say in The Five Doctors. In Resurrection he gets the equally thrilling, “Dark, isn’t it?” And “Impulsive, aren’t they?”

Lines which mean and add nothing. Pointless, aren’t they?

  1. The awkward way of saying something.

DOCTOR: I must have played truant that day. (Doctor, no one who ever wagged school would say they ‘played truant’.)

TEGAN: He didn’t intend to return. (Or, ‘he knew he wasn’t coming back’. Your choice, Tegan.)

TEGAN: Some other opportunity may arise. (Or, ‘we may find another way to help’. C’mon Teegs, you’re just not trying!)

DOCTOR: However you respond is seen as an act of provocation. (‘Everything provokes them’ would have done.)

STIEN: The Doctor without his companions would be rather incongruous. (Doctor! You’ve abandoned your companions? Incongruous, aren’t you?)

MERCER: Your bile would be better directed against the enemy, Doctor! (Eeeww.)

DOCTOR (mostly the Sixth): I am known as the Doctor. (Don’t get me started.)

  1. Expressing a laboured preference.

In which one person makes an innocent remark and another turns it into a whinge about what they want.

CALDER: Anyone want some tea?

TEGAN: I’d much rather have the Colonel back.

In Earthshock:

BRIGGS: You’ve done well, Mister. You’ll get an extra bonus.

RINGWAY: I’d rather have Vance and Carson alive.

A slight twist in Attack of the Cybermen:

DOCTOR: Merely slips of the tongue.

PERI: I rather think they’re slips of the mind.

Before the most wooden example of all in Revelation:

KARA: Please, accept my apologies.

DAVROS: I would sooner accept your money!

At which point everyone laughs awkwardly, and the big mutant head in a jar trying to crack the funnies.

  1. Lines which conjure peculiarly vivid imagery.

LYTTON: The original plan was to snatch Davros and leave, not dance to his every whim. (Oh no, I much prefer this revised plan. Go on, dance to Davros’s whims! I want to see what they are and see how elegantly these troopers can bust a move in their big Daleky helmets.)

STEIN: With the Bomb Disposal Squad duplicated, the Daleks had people to guard the warehouse who wouldn’t arouse suspicion. (That’s right, because a Bomb Disposal Squad never causes any undue attention! In fact, an old warehouse without a Bomb Disposal Squad would be rather incongruous.)

STYLES: Don’t you get funny ideas? I’d give anything for a glass of cool spring mountain water. (You’ve really thought about that, haven’t you Styles? Between running for your life and taking pot shots at Daleks. Not just water. Not just cool water. Not just cool spring water. But cool spring mountain water. I’m surprised she doesn’t specify which mountain.)

STEIN: I can’t stand the confusion in my mind! (Wow. That’s so strange, ’cause I can’t stand the confusion in my elbow.)

DOCTOR: You’re like a deranged child, all this talk of killing, revenge and destruction. (Look, I’m not here to give out parenting advice, but if you have a child, deranged or otherwise, talking about killing, revenge and destruction, you might want to cut off the red cordial and check their internet history.)

(Or check your DVD collection. They may just be binge watching Saward’s Doctor Who stories.)

LINK TO: The End of Time. Both have flashback sequences! De rigeur for both the Davison and Tennant eras.

NEXT TIME: Geronimo, allons y and Gallifrey stands, it’s The Day of the Doctor.

 

 

 

Moments, memories and The End of Time (2010)

Moment 1: When The End of Time Part Two was shown, there was a plaintive update from one of my Facebook friends. She just said:

“I don’t want you to go either.”

***

Back in the here and now, I’m thinking of what to say about The End of Time. It’s too obvious, I think, to talk about how this is all about Tennant and showrunner Russell T Davies leaving the show. It might be interesting to talk about how this is a story about veterans being dragged back into war. Or it might be interesting to talk about some of Davies’ favourite tropes: prophesies, people turned into super beings, things which are ‘lost‘ and things which ‘return’.

But I keep coming back to Tennant and what it means to have him leave the series. On one hand, The End of Time is a vehicle for that departure, certainly one that celebrates and honours him too. So far, so every regeneration story.

Except that Tennant is not just any Doctor. He’s the one who spearheaded the show’s growth in popularity in the noughties. He’s the one who attracted a sizeable female audience to the program, including Mrs Spandrell. He’s the only Doctor to rival the mighty Tom Baker’s claim to being everyone’s favourite Doctor. So Tennant leaving is huge and risky.

I don’t want you to go either, said my Facebook friend. Not just because she’ll miss his handsome face. But also because of an unspoken fear, that things will never be the same again.

***

Moment 2: At the Sydney Opera House for the Symphonic Spectacular (oh.. so much fun) in 2012. There’s a hero piece which features each Doctor’s regeneration, on a giant screen while an orchestra plays. Each Doctor gets their applause, with a spike for Tom Baker.

Eventually, David Tennant, and the place goes nuts. Matt Smith’s the incumbent Doctor at this stage. But it’s clear that Ten rules that room.

****

What is it that makes a room full of Who fans, young and old, new and classic, dragging along their mums, their kids and their long suffering spouses, go nuts for a big screen full of David Tennant regenerating? Why does he get the biggest, longest cheer? What endears him to them so?

Tennant was not widely known before Doctor Who. When he took it on, the role seemed to fit him like a glove. Perhaps because as a childhood fan he’d spent so much time preparing for the part. For male fans, he seems like one of us, the one who actually got to fulfil his boyish fantasies about playing the Doctor.

Oddly enough, this inspires no jealousy. Instead, we cheer him on. How could you not? He’s too bloody good, like that kid you played football with, who went on to play for (insert name of impressively grand football team here), while you gave up and went home to eat biscuits.

For female fans (who like boys, and for boys who like boys) he’s clearly a dish, and funny and charming to boot. But he’s the first Doctor to take an interest in girls. To want to court girls, and to acknowledge that girls like him. He’s the first Doctor it seems possible to date. Likes to dress up, likes a bit of a laugh. And he’s a bit damaged, but not so much that he’s cruel or nasty. Just a bit sad now and then. Plus brave and daring… What’s not to fall in love with?

That’s why an opera house full of people cry out for Ten. Because he’s got something for everyone.

****

Moment 3: Watching late series 3 on broadcast with Mrs Spandrell. I can’t remember which ep, but there’s a swagger in the Doctor’s step.

ME: Tennant’s changed since his first year, but I can’t quite work out how.

Mrs Spandrell thinks for a moment.

MRS: Before, he didn’t know he was sexy. Now he does. And he’s loving it.

****

When The Waters of Mars ended with the Doctor realising the folly of his attempt to cheat history, it was unclear to me what his final line of “No!” meant. Perhaps, I thought, it was uttered in defiance of the laws of time and he’d keep on with his meddling ways. Then I had a great idea for what Tennant’s finale might be about.

I thought that Tennant might be playing a Doctor gone bad, one who had continued to indulge his newfound power for changing events, but had now left Earth a twisted mess of timelines. He’d be left to rule over the chaos, a moody, unpredictable despot. In an attempt to defeat him and set time to rights, the Master is resurrected to bring down the Doctor, thereby reversing the familiar roles of good and bay guy.

Of course it wasn’t to be. But it would have a interesting end to the Tenth Doctor, who ended up too big for his dusty old sandshoes. Because the hubris he displayed in The Waters of Mars would have been thoroughly answered for. As would have that broader arrogance which had developed in the Doctor throughout his tenure. That swaggering brashness. The Tenth Doctor started out as a chic geek, but throughout the years he became sexy and he knew it. And there’s still a hint of that ego in The End of Time.

About which more after…

***

Moment 4: Dinner out with Mrs Spandrell and a old friend who’s an avid watcher, but not quite a fan, of Doctor Who. Somehow, the conversation turns to David Tennant and his departure from the show and specifically the 10min+ sequence where he visits all his former companions. Indulgent, says our friend. Gushy, says Mrs Spandrell. They are in agreement. Self serving, shmaltzy… and then the entrees arrive.

***

It’s an epic story this. The Master (John Simm) on full tilt, turning a whole planet into duplicates of himself in the ultimate ego trip (don’t ask how they’re going to reproduce). The return of Gallifrey and of Rassilon (Timothy Dalton), leaving no scenery unchewed. A dogfight with spaceships and missiles. And the Doctor falling from the sky, crashing into a building and um, somehow surviving.

The end for Ten, when it comes, is the cleverest thing in the story. Poor old Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) tapping meekly on that glass door, making good on the much threatened “he will knock four times” warning, as smart a misdirection as the show has ever got away with. Before he saves his life, the Doctor’s furious. He wants to live. “I could do so much more!” he yells, but he’s forfeited that right. His hubris is what’s brought him down. He has to die, and the regeneration starts.

But then there’s the long goodbye. Nearly 15 minutes of it, visiting companions past, seeing who got married to this and who nearly got run over by that and who he can pimp out to the other. Schmaltzy and indulgent, yes. If this were the Davison era, we’d make do with a sepia flashback sequence. If it was the Pertwee era, we’d just unsentimentally roll back and mix. But this is the Tennant era, so it’s bold, brash and just that little bit full of itself. So it kind of works.

Then the TARDIS catches fire, and new Doctor arrives, screaming like a newborn. Things are never the same again.

LINK TO Face the RavenThe faux death of a regular, again.

NEXT TIME: Best news all day. It’s Resurrection of the Daleks.

Spells, sentiment and Face the Raven (2015)

Doctor Who takes a rare turn towards the magical in this pivotal episode in Peter Capaldi’s second series. The hidden pocket world of Trap Street, a cornucopia of refugee aliens, has the enclosed streetscape feel of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. So it’s fitting that the story’s monster, the ethereal Quantum Shade, is indistinguishable from magic. It’s a tattoo which turns into smoke which turns into a raven which flies right through your heart. Even the Doctor, usually a stickler for pseudoscience, simply calls it “a spirit”. There’s witchcraft about.

This sorcery manifests itself in a curse placed upon an old friend, graffiti artist Rigsy (Joivan Wade). While he’s slept, he’s been mysteriously tattooed with a number which is ominously ticking down (referencing urban myths of humans being interfered with by aliens while they slept, and the old biblical superstition of people being tattooed with numbers at the end of days).

Clara (Jenna Coleman) jumps to the conclusion (unfairly, as it turns out) that he has simply made a poor life choice, but when we catch up with him, we see that he’s cleaned up his act a bit since Flatline. He’s got a job, a partner and even a new baby girl to look after. (Though he just jumps in the TARDIS and heads off with the Doctor, and leaves the baby in her cot. I hope the mysterious Jen’s at home, otherwise Rigsy mightn’t have this whole parental responsibility thing down pat yet.)

Rigsy’s an interesting choice for a return appearance. That tattoo could have been placed on the neck of a more familiar semi-regular, like Kate Stewart or Osgood or even Jenny Flint, had this been set back in Victorian times. But Rigsy allows the element of parenthood (a Moffat favourite) to come into play, and raises the stakes by giving us a baby-shaped reason for saving his life. Plus it never hurts to see another sympathetic young black man on Doctor Who. Even though the show’s record on diverse casting is not too bad, Rigsy still feels like a more novel choice and one which speaks to the yoof, innit.

The Doctor knows that whoever cast the spell which resulted in Rigsy’s neck ink will be found in a trap street; a hidden pocket world named after an intentionally bogus street placed on an otherwise accurate map. (I’m reminded of when the seventh Doctor once claimed to be “contemplating some local cartographical anomalies”.) Quite how the Doctor knows this is where the mystery tattoo artist resides is unclear. More magic I suppose. As is the way you detect a trap street – it’s the point where you suddenly lose concentration while walking down the road. If only I’d known. I’m always doing that. I’ve probably walked past dozens of them.

Once in Trap Street, our heroes discover that this magical tale has a wicked witch, in Mayor Me aka Ashildr (Maisie Williams). Me is Series Nine’s most interesting development. An 18 year old girl, made immortal at the Doctor’s hand, she walks a fine line between ally and adversary. Here, she’s the mastermind behind events. Having framed Rigsy for an imaginary murder, she enticed the Doctor to Trap Street with a mystery for him to solve, only to capture him on behalf of the unseen “them”. There’s some elegance in the idea that Trap Street is in fact a trap for the Doctor. But it’s not entirely clear why the Mayor couldn’t have nabbed the Doctor the moment he walked into the hidden world. (Nor what her reward is for ensnaring him for “them”.)

If she had captured the Doctor right from the get go, however, we wouldn’t get to see Clara’s ongoing development into a proto-Doctor. She’s been pulling a few Doctory tricks for a while now, but she’s developed an over confidence which leads to hubris. When she voluntarily takes on Rigsy’s ticking clock of a tattoo, it’s she who has made the poor life choice, which leads to her (*cough* faux) death. I’m not sure how I feel about setting her up to be a Doctor duplicate and then having her fail so spectacularly. On the one hand it’s classically tragic. On the other, it feels just a little sexist, to have a woman seek to emulate the performance of a man, and then fail.

Potential sexism aside, it’s a little like Earthshock, a seminal old Who serial for Moffat, in that the companion takes over the Doctor’s role and fails at it, leading to their death. But the way these deaths pan out is quite different. Clara’s death is forecast a handy 8 minutes early, so there’s time for brave speeches, outraged exchanges and teary goodbyes. In Earthshock, Adric’s death was delayed until the very last moments, giving the audience that slow dawning realisation throughout the episode that this time, things weren’t going to work out. Adric’s is still the companion’s exit which packs the greatest punch, because it’s inherently unsentimental. Clara’s pre-planned demise gives us time to dwell on it, and as such we begin to doubt whether this really is a final goodbye.

Earthshock is a clear influence on Face the Raven, but the latter is doing something quite different. When Adric died, all the fifth Doctor could do was mourn briefly then move on. The twelfth Doctor wants to not only avenge Clara’s death but also reverse it. It’s in Clara’s attitude to this white knight syndrome, both here and in Hell Bent that we find an antidote to the patronising “you can’t be a Doctor” approach. She accepts her choices and their consequences. She doesn’t ask the Doctor to save her. She takes responsibility. And there’s something great about a hero who does that, as we watch from a world where so often people rush to blame others, the government, their family or whoever for their problems.

Clara dies a soundless death and the Doctor disappears in a flash of light, defeated but defiant. He’ll be trapped in a clockwork castle for billions of years, then he’ll fight his way out and rescue Clara between heartbeats. She’ll end up travelling the universe, without a pulse but still walking and talking. She’s the impossible girl again. It’s yet another kind of magic.

LINK TO The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood. Faux deaths of companions.

NEXT TIME… It’s the end of Ten in The End of Time.

 

 

 

Mostly dead, slightly alive and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (2010)

You can’t kill the Doctor. Because he’ll just regenerate. So by extension, there’s no use threatening to kill him. The audience knows he’ll be back next episode. Threatening the Doctor is inherently undramatic. Might as well not even bother.

Companions though, are a different story. They are fair game. And the death of a companion can have great impact. Although the merits of Earthshock are much debated, it showed how killing off a companion could pack an emotional punch and shake up this otherwise cozy series. Its influence on new Who is palpable. Even now, the death of a companion is something the new show flirts with regularly.

Except that new Who is more Mindwarp than Earthshock. It is yet to have the guts to definitively kill off a companion. It prefers the faux death of companions. Just as Peri’s death turned out to be a convoluted lie, so nearly every 21st century companion has had some “get out of death free” card. Rose didn’t die at Canary Wharf, but escaped to a parallel world. Jack died and was resurrected, many times over. Donna didn’t die but had her memory erased. Amy died but was brought back to life by a big box. Clara died but her death was stalled by the Time Lords and now she rides again.

And Rory. Sweet deathless Rory. As the Silence says, he’s the man who dies and dies again. When he’s thinking of jumping off the side of a building in The Angels Take Manhattan, he’s even self aware enough to joke about it. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is only his third story as a companion, but he’s already died twice (a dream version of him fell to dust in Amy’s Choice). Another dream version of him will die in The Doctor’s Wife and he nearly carks it in The Curse of the Black Spot. He’s king of the faux death.

New Who has adopted the faux death as a recurring motif. This should really be no surprise in a series which, at its heart, has a lead character who cheats death over and over again through regeneration. Rory, Clara et al are echoes of that major theme.

The faux death differs between the RTD and Moffat eras, though. In Davies’ time as showrunner there were two ways to not really die. The first, a la Rose and Donna, was for the death to be explained off as a technicality (you’re officially dead on our Earth, but not on a parallel world. Your memory’s wiped, so that version of you is dead). It’s a narrative sleight of hand; lead your audience to draw a conclusion and then subvert their expectations. The second was the Jack Harkness model; to be granted Doctor-like powers of reincarnation to become the man who cannot die (series regulars becoming super beings being another Davies motif).

The Moffat way of death is to more blatantly disregard its finality. In Moffat’s Who death is temporary. People frequently come back from death. Amy died in The Pandorica Opens, but in the very next episode it’s explained that she’s only “mostly dead” (in a line so outrageous it can only be forgiven because it’s obviously cribbed from The Princess Bride, in which Billy Crystal’s character Miracle Max says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive”). Put her back in the Pandorica and she comes back to life.

Often people come back as digital copies of themselves, like River and Danny Pink. And then of course there’s the multiversions of Rory and the resurrected Clara. Osgood appears to die but that was a Zygon (I think) and even the Brigadier comes back as a Cyberman. Nardole’s resurrection from within a big robot is still to be fully explained.

So RTD pretends he’s going to kill someone, then doesn’t. The Moff kills them and then brings them back anyway. Moff’s approach can be summed up in Amy’s line from The Big Bang, “if you can remember someone, they can come back”. And it’s that message which bothers me the most.

Sorry to get all, “won’t somebody think of the children?” for a moment but should Doctor Who be telling the younger members of its audience the death of a loved one is temporary? The fact is that you can remember someone you’ve lost all you like, but they cannot come back.

Not that I think Doctor Who has the power to delude children into thinking the dead can be resurrected. But how inexpressibly sad for a child who has lost a friend or family member – perhaps one in the middle of the grieving process – to turn to their favourite show and be presented with the glib, almost crass, suggestion that if you remember someone, they can come back from the dead. I think that might sour a young viewer’s opinion of the show forever.

How to fix this? It’s back to the Earthshock model. When you kill someone, they stay dead. As painful as it is. There may not be much to recommend Time-Flight, but when Tegan and Nyssa plead with the Doctor to change events and save Adric’s life, he says no, that’s not possible. And when the two women meet a phantom of the dead boy later in the story, they rightly walk through it for the illusion that it is. It hurts, but the right message. Dead is dead.

So while The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood may once have packed a punch, it’s now difficult to take its best moment, Rory’s demise, seriously. Just as it was difficult to take Clara’s death in Face the Raven (about which more NEXT TIME) seriously. Because we know that in new Who, death doesn’t stop a companion’s story.

But it should. It really should.

LINK TO Inside the Spaceship. The TARDIS in trouble, again.

 

 

 

Intuition, inference and Inside the Spaceship (1964)

In the info text on the DVD for this story, it says that writer David Whitaker, in a desperate attempt to fill a two episode gap in Doctor Who’s schedule, wrote this story over the course of two days and nights, barely stopping for sleep. It’s not surprising then that Inside the Spaceship is a dream-like experience, peppered with some arresting imagery but fundamentally incoherent. It’s exactly the sort of story you might come up with, working on three hours sleep a night and with only coffee, cigarettes and the fear of what your next job will be when this series ends after 13 episodes to sustain you.

It’s a tease of a story. It keeps wandering down interesting paths, then retreating from them. For instance, in the first episode Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) comes up with a theory for the blackouts, memory loss and hallucinations the Ship’s crew have been experiencing. She suggests that someone or something may have infiltrated the TARDIS. This is then expanded on by Susan (Carole Ann Ford) who’s doing the whole crazed teenage girl bit, when she proposes that whatever it is could be hiding inside one of them.

The whole episode hinges on this idea. The cliffhanger, where a pair of outstretched arms close around the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) neck seems a bit stagy when you know the story well. But on first viewing I suspect it might have been quite thrilling. We know the rest of our heroes are asleep; therefore these hands must belong to the intruder. It’s not so much, “how will the Doctor get out of this one?” as “who’s in the Ship with them?” But after we find out the assailant is actually Ian (William Russell), dazedly trying to protect the Doctor, this promising plot line falls away.

Another road only partially ventured down is the ruthlessness of the Doctor and what he might do to Ian and Barbara if they got in his way. The show has been building up to this; the first two Doctor Who stories both feature moments where it seems the Doctor might do something terrible about of self preservation. In the first story, there’s the suggestion that he’ll brain a wounded caveman to aid their escape, and in The Daleks, he suggests abandoning Barbara in the Dalek city when he realises the high level of radioactivity about the place. Here, having jumped erroneously to the conclusion that Ian and Barbara have attacked him and Susan and undertaken sabotage, he threatens to throw them off the Ship. Yes, the extent of his paranoia is reached. But he never goes through with the plan and events move on.

What is actually happening is that the Ship is careering back through time to its own destruction, and is desperately trying to warn its inhabitants. That it would do so by knocking them out, inciting suspicion and paranoia, booby trapping the control panel, displaying cryptic photographs on the scanner and melting any available clock faces seems improbable to our 21st century understanding of smart devices. Asking why this most sophisticated of machines has to resort to an elaborate game of charades when it could simply have an error message pop up (“It seems your fast return switch is faulty and the death of everyone on board may result. Would you like me to fix that?”) is fair enough.

The Ship does have a fault locator but it’s a strangely capricious box of nuts and bolts. It’s a device that can indicate if a part of the ship is faulty, but can’t communicate that despite everything working properly, the Ship is hurtling towards its doom. I don’t know about you, but I would have prioritised a code which said, “the Ship is about to disintegrate” over “the fluid link’s out of mercury” or “stock up on more bacon & egg flavoured mars bars”. Except this was a time when fantastic machines could be easily imagined, but the ways in which they might communicate with humans could not.

Hence the baffling explanations given in the script to explain what the Ship’s up to. When the fault locator starts lighting up every indicator it has every 15 seconds, it suddenly all makes sense to Barbara. “We have a measure of time as long as it lasts,” she declares. “That explains the clock face. We had time taken away from us, and now it’s being given back to us, because it’s running out!” Um, what? I sense it was about 1am when Whitaker tapped out that one, probably after eschewing a fourth cup of black coffee and opening a bottle of scotch.

But Barbara’s on a roll: “And it replaced time by the light on the fault locator.” Ah of course. That explains everything. She goes on: “Originally, the machine wasn’t at fault, we were. And it’s been trying to tell us so ever since!” Well she gets there in the end, but that’s some peculiarly fashioned reasoning you’ve got there Babs. But as she tells us earlier in the story, things aren’t always logical. Too true, Babs.

As the story stumbles towards a close (just a few more scenes, David! Throwback that glass and keep going!), the difference between Barbara’s approach to problem solving and the Doctor’s is presented as the crux of the story. “It was your instinct and intuition against my logic, and you succeeded… you read a story into all these things and were determined to hold on to it,” he says to her, exhibiting a bit more this story’s peculiar explanatory style. The point might have been reinforced if it was Barbara who led the Doctor to discovering the stuck fast return switch, but that task falls to the more technically minded Ian. So the triumph of instinct over logic is another one of those ideas only partially explored.

The real point of Inside the Spaceship is that it marks an end to hostilities between the Doctor and his human companions. It’s a reset point, after which the Doctor will never be as ruthless again. He will throw the odd tanty but he now has a full set of willing companions. Given this outcome, it might have been better for all four crew members to have played an active role in solving the problem, reinforcing that having started out as strangers, they have ended up as a team. In short, a little more clarity of theme and a few rewrites would have helped this little stopgap story enormously.

I can imagine the scene when an exhausted David Whitaker turned up to the production office, bleary eyed and unshaven, to discuss the final scripts with producer Verity Lambert.

VERITY: It’s not very logical, is it?

DAVID: No, it isn’t. But does it have to be? I mean, things aren’t always very logical, are they?

VERITY:

DAVID: For god’s sake Verity, just make it!

LINK TO: Utopia etc. Trouble with the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME:  Dress for Rio, because it’s The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood

Super heroes, super villains and Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (2007)

Each of the first few years of new Who resurrected a classic adversary from the series’ past. Year one: Daleks. Year two: Cybermen. In retrospect, it seems obvious that year three’s returnee should be the Master. But it didn’t feel like that at the time.

Because there’s always been an ambivalence about the Master. Sometimes he’s a dark yet fascinating mirror image of the Doctor. Sometimes he’s a plug and play villain with a penchant for theatrics and over complication. It would not have been inconceivable for new Who to leave him buried in the time war.

But as the new show’s third year progressed, there became something increasingly heroic about the Doctor. I mean that in the sense of him being a super hero.

With David Tennant in the title role, he becomes a man with super powers. He can grow back severed limbs. He can go for a mental stroll through people’s minds. He can expel radiation into his shoe. And of course he can disguise himself as a human. In Utopia and The Sound of Drums there are loads of shots of him running around to save the day, coat flapping in the breeze like a cape, sidekicks running slightly behind. You half expect him to fly.

The Master says that he was resurrected as the ultimate warrior for the time war. But in production terms, he was resurrected for exactly the same reason that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks created him in the first place. By series 3, the Doctor’s a super hero and so he needs a super villain.

****

Showrunner Russell T Davies would have been well aware of the mixed feelings around bringing the Master back. So he does exactly what he did with the Daleks and the Cybermen; he renovates him.

In the Master’s case, the first challenge is to cast a brilliant actor in the lead role, someone who can provide a gravitas to the role and improve its respectability, in the same way the casting of Christopher Eccleston had done in year one. But this year, Davies went one better than finding a top class actor for the role; he found two.

The first is Derek Jacobi. As Professor Yana, he’s a kindly, doddery old soul. As the short-lived version of the Master, he’s a raging beast, freshly awoken and hungry. His fury is palpable from the moment he turns on his horrified assistant Chantho (Chipo Chung) who’s just pulled a gun on him. “Now I can say I was provoked,” he says chillingly, although he’s clearly a man who answers to no one for his actions. He rails against her stupidity and leaving him trapped for years. Just before he zaps his insectoid helper with a live cable, he hisses out the words that many suspected but few dared to definitely guess until he said them out loud: “I… Am… The Master!” Electrifying. Still one of new Who’s best moments.

It’s a sign of how well Doctor Who was doing in 2007 that it could book Sir Derek Jacobi for one episode, have him play the Master for a few minutes, then burn right through him. But in only a few minutes he brings something new to this most familiar of characters- a seething resentment for the years he’s lost. This is a Master who feels hard done by. And when he regenerates, it’s not just a matter of life-saving expedience, it’s an act motivated by jealousy. “If the Doctor can be young and strong, so can I!” he declares. And in a flash of light, he looks like John Simm.

If Jacobi’s Master’s defining characteristic is anger, Simm’s is an ongoing delight at his own cleverness. He’s so pleased with his evil plan to take over the world, that he can’t help laughing, dancing and clapping his hands in joy. He’s a jokey, jovial madman. Davies has said that his aim was to make the Master as charming and charismatic as Tennant’s crowd pleasing Doctor and he got it spot on. Simm proves to be the first guest star of the new series who gives a performance which outshines the Doctor.

In The Sound of Drums, the Master is an entertaining bad guy, one you can’t help but like. In Last of the Time Lords, he becomes a hateful despot; a mass murderer, a bully, a torturer and a wife beater. In a series first, we get to see the consequences of the Master winning, and they’re not pretty. It’s clever of Davies, because one of the weaknesses of old Master schemes in which he threatened to take over the Earth – stories like The Claws of Axos and The Sea Devils, specifically mentioned here – was the nagging doubt about how a nutbag like him would manage to dominate an entire planet on his own. The answer given here is by totalitarianism on a grand scale. He’s Kim Jong Il but with killer floating globes from outer space.

****

Such an epic plan requires a reset switch of epic proportions. Best not to stop to think about Martha (Freema Agyeman) travelling the world solo and spreading her story to get the world’s population to pray to the Doctor at a specific time. Best also not to look too lingeringly at those closely framed shots of a few extras, attempting to show a planet full of people chanting “Doctor”. Best also not to think about how the Doctor uses the psychic energy to restore himself from a stunted, wizened elf to a flying, laser beam resistant super being, complete with a new costume. Well, he is a super hero these days.

All that’s just window dressing though. I think the cleverest part of the story is how in defeat, the Master finds a way to wound the Doctor. Throughout the story, the Doctor’s been explaining to the Master that they are the only Time Lords left, pleading that they only have each other. In a funny way, the Doctor longs for them to be together, in a way that the Master clearly doesn’t give two hoots about. When the Doctor talks mournfully of Gallifrey burning, all the Master can do is marvel at the idea of its destruction, almost lustfully.

So it makes perfect sense that the Doctor wants to forgive the Master for his heinous crimes, because he wants them to coexist. Perhaps even cohabitate, as the Doctor suggests as the Master’s captured. The Doctor’s so desperate not to be the last of the Time Lords he’ll save the Master and let him move in. But when he’s shot, the Master finds that by deliberately letting himself die, he’s denying the Doctor the thing he most wants: companionship. “I win!” he smiles as he dies. For him, it’s always been a contest. For the Doctor, a rescue mission.

It ends with the Doctor burning his old frenemy’s body on a pyre and a red fingernailed hand salvaging a mysterious ring from the ashes. It’s a comic book style ending. But that makes sense. ‘Cos comic books are where you’ll find super heroes and super villains.

LINK TO The Stones of Blood: as per last time, the post-coital scenes.

NEXT TIME: One man’s law is another man’s crime. We’re heading Inside the Spaceship.

 

 

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