Narrative, Mystery and Mindwarp (1986)

mindwarp

The trial has a great many twists… There are lots of layers, and it’s very, very complicated, which I rather like. I like things you can’t understand. Colin Baker, DWM 118.

The Trial of a Time Lord is Doctor Who‘s great experiment with presenting a dual narrative. Over 12 of its 14 episodes, it presents three Doctor Who stories as evidence in the Doctor’s trial for breaking the Time Lords’ law on interference. Interlaced with these three stories is the Doctor’s trial itself; we cut from the action regularly to see how the evidence is affecting the trial and specifically, three characters: the Doctor, court prosecutor the Valeyard and magistrate type the Inquisitor. We are effectively watching fictional characters watch Doctor Who.

So while the three stories are being told, there’s a longer narrative – a slower burn – also playing out. Watching just one of Trial’s  segments out of order means that the viewer gets a Doctor Who story in its entirety (the evidence, set here on the garish planet Thoros Beta), plus just one part of a much larger story (the trial). Whatever the merits of this approach (and they have been debated at length), I think it’s fair to say that it’s audacious and innovative move for Doctor Who.

Trial‘s second segment, known informally as Mindwarp (you didn’t really expect me to tap out The Trial of a Time Lord parts 5-8 each time, did you?) deals with the dual narrative approach neatly, and does something interesting with its main story too. But first, to the trial.

Someone once said to me about playwriting that each character, no matter how minor, needs to go on a journey throughout the story. They each need to be transformed; in some way changed by the events of the story, so they are a different person at the end, from who they were at the beginning. Thinking about the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor – the characters in the ’trial story’ – I don’t think they can be said to be transformed in either The Mysterious Planet or Terror of the Vervoids. Which is another way of saying not much happens to those characters in those two stories to change them.

But much happens to them in Mindwarp, and the story it tells in the trial room is one of the Doctor gradually losing confidence in himself and his actions.

It starts with the Doctor treating the trial with mocking irreverence. He’s hugely confident in himself and his own actions and that both can withstand any criticism. But when the evidence shows him being subjected to a brain transference machine, the trial room Doctor realises he can no longer remember anything that happened on Thoros Beta after that point. To him, the evidence is no longer simply the replaying of recent events. It has turned into an allegation of his role in events he cannot recall, but which are played out for him on screen. And to him, the evidence looks flawed. His levity vanishes.

VALEYARD: Does any of your sudden and convenient recall agree with anything that the court has already seen?
DOCTOR: No! I mean yes, but, but the emphasis is all wrong.
VALEYARD: And what does that mean?
DOCTOR: The events took place but not quite as we’ve seen them.

This is quite a frightening idea; that you might be confronted with video evidence of yourself behaving wildly out of character or even committing a crime. But if you had no clear memory of the events, how could you refute the evidence of your own eyes, or hope to offer an alternative version of events? In the Doctor’s case, events on Thoros Beta hardly show him in a good light.

Let’s jump to the Thoros Beta story. The Doctor and Peri arrive to find out who’s supplying arms to people called the warlords of Thordon. But this is soon forgotten when they see Sil (Nabil Shaban), the reptilian capitalist villain from Vengeance on Varos. Sil’s boss Kiv (Christopher Ryan) is there too, suffering from a condition where his brain is swelling within his skull. Surgeon Crozier (Patrick Ryecart) is attempting to find a suitable body into which to transfer Kiv’s brain.

After being subjected to the brain transfer machine, the Doctor initially appears to lose his marbles for a bit, before deciding to betray Peri and new found ally Yrcanos (BRIAN BLESSED!!!) and side with Sil. It is suggested by the trial room Doctor and by Sil himself that this is a ruse, designed to gain the bad guys’ confidence. And so it appears to be; late in proceedings the Doctor switches sides again and appears to be back to his normal self.

For the period when the Doctor is working with Sil, he’s quite horrible, particularly towards Peri. And we never find out for sure if this behaviour was indeed a ploy, or if the Doctor’s brain was scrambled by the machine, or if the evidence had been tampered with to make the Doctor appear to be a bastard. Hang on to this, I’ll come back to it. Because something nifty is about to happen.

In Part Eight, the Doctor on Thoros Beta seems back to normal. With Yrcanos in tow, he’s off to stop Crozier operating on Peri. We’ve been here before; the story is rushing towards its conclusion. Then, mid corridor run, the TARDIS appears in a shaft of blue light, the Doctor is drawn into it, and the ship disappears, to land a second later on the space station where the Doctor’s trial is taking place. It’s a great moment as we realise this is where we came in back at Part One of Trial. It’s the classic series’ cleverest use of time travel to double back on its own narrative, and perhaps the most elegant of its kind in all of Doctor Who. To use a Moffatism, a true timey-wimey moment.

But the really neat bit is that the two storylines – trial and Thoros Beta – now converge. The Doctor can merely watch the conclusion of events play out on screen. The Inquisitor suddenly takes a more active role, describing how the Time Lords decided to intervene, saying events had gone too far. And then the story ends in devastating style; Peri’s brain is wiped, and replaced with Kiv’s. Effectively she’s transformed into a monster. Yrcanos breaks in a shoots the place up. Everyone dies.

In the trial room, our three characters reach the end of their journeys. The Doctor is shattered, but vows to fight on. The Inquisitor has become the Time Lords’ voice, justifying their actions, no longer an impartial observer. The Valeyard is triumphant, and the trial no longer seems like a joke, but in fact a cover for something far more serious.

The trial room story (or this part of it) has ended. But the conclusion to events on Thoros Beta feels unsatisfying, because we never found out the reason why the Doctor was acting the way he did. Later in Trial, it’s confirmed that the Thoros Beta evidence was altered and that Peri survived. Which changes the way we look at Mindwarp. It becomes the only story where the viewer is presented with an unreliable version of events. Let me tell you a story, Mindwarp says, but it might not all be true.

Mindwarp is famously the story where disgruntled script editor Eric Saward walked off the program. His mind clearly was not on the job during this story. Colin Baker has often said that he couldn’t get an answer from script editor nor director on what was causing the Doctor’s erratic behaviour. This uncertainty is often pointed out as a production error. And it probably is just that.

But what that narrative vagueness has left us with is something unique: a Doctor Who story we’ll only ever know part of. Bits of the full story are missing. It’s a story which, because of its very design and construction, we’ll never get to the bottom of.

If I didn’t know about the behind the scenes turmoil engulfing the show at this time, I’d be tempted to say it was deliberate, with writer Philip Martin wildly experimenting with the program, keeping everyone in the dark about the lead character’s motive – even the actors and production crew – to create something which genuinely wrongfoots the viewer. There’s a part of me that would really like that to be the case. Because as noted by Colin Baker himself, it is possible to like something you don’t fully understand.

LINK TO Turn Left: Both feature the faux death of a companion.

NEXT TIME: Love & Monsters. Elton! Fetch a spade!

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Apocalypse, grimness and Turn Left (2008)

turn left pic

Doctor Who is a genre hopping series. One week it’s a sci-fi epic, the next it’s a western, the next it’s a screwball comedy. But although the show can be many things, it can’t be everything. There are some genres which would stretch the format too far, at least in its TV incarnation. It will never be, for instance, a slasher pic. We’ll never see a Doctor Who martial arts epic.  If there’s a Doctor Who erotic thriller, it will exist only in the dark corners of the internet (and if it already does then please, by all that’s holy, don’t point me towards it).

One genre the show has dabbled with, but which comes close to breaking the show’s format, is post-apocalyptic, where a story is typically set in the aftermath of a global holocaust, society has broken down and a small group of characters struggle for survival. We’re talking Day of the Triffids, Threads, The Road and Mad Max. None of which I’ve seen. Because I dislike the post-apocalyptic genre. I find it makes for unsettling viewing and although I know that’s the point, I don’t enjoy it. So I tend to avoid it.

So it’s a bit annoying when my favourite show occasionally experiments with it. Thankfully, such experiments are rare. There’s a hint of it in Frontios, in which the planet’s inhabitants start looting when the figures of authority start losing control (but thankfully the presence of some big fleshy cockroaches tend to negate any disturbing sense of realism which threatens to emerge).

Old Who’s most concerted effort at it though is Episodes 5 and 6 of Inferno.  They are set in an alternative universe in which an attempt to penetrate the earth’s crust goes disastrously wrong and the Doctor can do nothing – nothing – to save the people around him and strives simply to escape back to his own reality.  Brutally directed by Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts, this story uses compellingly desperate performances and a haunting soundtrack to create a genuinely disturbing vision of humans fighting against the inevitable. The cliffhanger to Episode 6, where the remaining humans watch as a wall of lava creeps irrevocably towards them remains one of Doctor Who’s most visceral moments.

But it doesn’t feel much like Doctor Who, because it’s so grim. And grimness is a characteristic it shares with Turn Left, the Doctor-lite episode from David Tennant’s third season (and interestingly, also set in an alternative reality). Both are as bleak as the series gets, much grimmer than something like say, Earthshock, which features the death of a companion but in other respects is a standard Doctor Who action adventure. So how grim can Doctor Who get?

Turn Left  has two interesting spins on post-apocalyptic fiction. Firstly, the apocalypse in question is caused by the Doctor’s death, itself caused by Donna (Catherine Tate, in a virtuoso performance) taking a seemingly tiny decision to turn right at an intersection instead of left. So Donna, the hero we follow through the story, actually caused all the dreadful events that befall her.

The story’s second twist is that rather than the apocalypse happening at the beginning of the story, here the apocalypse never stops happening. The Doctor is not around to stop a series of alien incursions. As such, disaster is piled upon disaster and millions of people die. It’s unrelenting; while watching this for the first time I wondered mid-episode how far writer Russell T Davies could go. Donna’s own situation deteriorates with each global disaster; she loses her job, then her home and finally all hope.

Donna’s companion through this snowballing series of events is Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper who returns to the series after a season and a half. Rose has greatly changed since we last saw her.  Here she jumps between dimensions and in and out of the story. She has mysterious foreknowledge of events. She speaks obliquely and won’t reveal her name. She seems untrustworthy. After she encounters Donna for the second time, Donna’s had enough. “I think you should leave me alone”, she warns, coldly.

In script writing terms, Rose turns up regularly in the story’s first two acts, each time revealing more each time and gradually earning Donna’s trust. It’s interesting to see the structure Davies uses here, which is basically:  the Doctor’s death, encounter with Rose, situation worsens, encounter with Rose, situation worsens, encounter with Rose, situation reaches a critical point where Donna makes a decision, encounter with Rose which leads to the story’s climax.

That critical point is interesting. Rose has warned Donna that eventually she will come with her willingly to fix things, but as a result Donna’s going to die. The point where Donna can take no more is when her fellow refugee Rocco and his family are taken away to a labour camp. It’s a heartbreaking scene, in which director Graham Harper chooses shrewdly a shot from the back of the retreating prisoner-laden truck, where we watch Donna chasing helplessly behind it. Finally defeated, she goes with Rose.

It’s a clever choice from Davies, but I can’t help wonder if there’s another catalytic event that would have suited the story even better. Throughout the story, Donna’s been accompanied by her mother Sylvia (Jacqueline King) and her grandfather Wilf (Bernard Cribbins). Cribbins is terrific as a man reliving the terrors of war with both stoicism and mounting dread. But it is King that steals the show, with one of Doctor Who’s best performances.

Sylvia, for all her bluster, has none of her daughter’s or father’s resilience. She slowly shuts down over the course of the episode to the point where she can’t offer her daughter any words of love, only mutely signal her despair. All the signs are pointing to her suicide. Surely that would have led even more fittingly to Donna’s decision to go with Rose and do whatever she needs to make things right.

But the suicide of our hero’s mother is clearly more than Doctor Who’s format can bear. And thus we have the answer to how grim Doctor Who can get; as grim as Turn Left and no more. I, for one, am grateful.

LINKS to Arc of Infinity: I know, I know. Can there be two more different stories than these? But there’s a clear link – both feature the return of a companion. Other than that, of course, they are chalk and cheese!

NEXT TIME: Nobody likes brain alteration! But that’s just what we’ll be served up when we take our first random trip with the sixth Doctor, Mindwarp.

Nothing grim happens in that one, right?

Script meeting, speculation and Arc of Infinity (1983)

arc

ERIC SAWARD: Johnny! Thanks for coming in.
JOHNNY BYRNE: My pleasure, Eric. How’s the new job coming along?
SAWARD: Oh fine, fine. Just settling in, really.
BYRNE: How are you getting on with the producer?
SAWARD: Oh very well. I’m sure we’ll be the best of friends. Right now though, I’m looking for scripts for the new season.
BYRNE: Oh yes?
SAWARD: And I enjoyed that Traken one you did for Tom. And seeing as we’re paying you every time we use Nyssa, I thought might as well put you to work, eh? Eh? (Awkward silence) Anyway, did you have any ideas?
BYRNE: Well, yes as it happens. I’ve been thinking of a story about a creature from another dimension, who’s trying to force its way into our universe. Have you read The Mist?
SAWARD: No. But your idea sounds great! Before you go too far with it, there are a few bits and pieces we’d like you to… incorporate.
BYRNE: Such as?
SAWARD: Well, you did such a great job of bringing back the Master, and it is the show’s twentieth anniversary, how about bringing back Omega?
BYRNE: Who’s Omega?
SAWARD: Omega is a kind of Time Lord demi-god who exists only in a universe of anti-matter and who appeared in the tenth anniversary show.  Have you seen The Three Doctors?
BYRNE: No. But I can see how that will fit into my story. An immensely powerful being, but poison to his own kind. He’d be a kind of lonely outcast once he got into our world… Maybe he’d meet a little boy, and rather than kill him, be entranced by his innocence… have you seen Frankenstein?
SAWARD: No. But that all sounds terrific. Of course, it will need to be set in Amsterdam.
BYRNE: Right. Why exactly?
SAWARD: The producer wants to shoot overseas somewhere. And we get the cast and crew to buy their own meals and travel everywhere by bicycle we can just about afford to go to Amsterdam.
BYRNE: Hmm, OK.
SAWARD: No honestly, it’ll be great! They went to Paris a couple of years back and it was brilliant. The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. Much better than some old country manor or disused warehouse. Have you seen City of Death?
BYRNE: No. But Amsterdam, doesn’t have those iconic fixtures like the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. What has it got?
SAWARD: Legal grass?
BYRNE: Not really Doctor Who territory is it? Tulips?
SAWARD: Organs?
BYRNE: I seem to remember that it’s below sea level. Maybe that becomes important to this Omega chap because it’s somehow necessary to his plan for emerging into this universe.
SAWARD: Great! Use that! It will need a monster of course.
BYRNE: Will it? Won’t Omega do?
SAWARD: Oh no, no no! He’s just the villain. We’ll need a monster too.
IAN LEVINE (OOV): Omega can conjure up monsters simply using his own will!
BYRNE: What was that?
SAWARD: Nothing, just ignore it. But yes, Omega can create his own monster.
BYRNE: Hmm, maybe a henchman type of thing. Created from the raw matter of the universe. All flesh and sinew but covered in an exoskeleton. Have you seen Alien?
SAWARD: No. But that sounds just the ticket.
BYRNE: Can the budget manage it? We don’t want it to look like, oh I don’t know, a big rubber chicken. Ha ha.
SAWARD: Ha ha. No, that’ll never happen.
LEVINE (OOV): Gallifrey!
BYRNE: Is there someone behind that door?
SAWARD: No, of course not. But that’s the other thing – we want to set some of it on Gallifrey. That’s the planet of the Time Lords.
BYRNE: What’s that like then?
SAWARD: Oh, it’s terrific. All gothic chambers and big impressive cathedral-like spaces. Have you seen The Deadly Assassin?
BYRNE: No.
SAWARD. Just as well, because we won’t have any money for any of that after we go to Amsterdam. A few corridors, some space boardrooms and a few lounges will do.
BYRNE: Sounds lovely. Well, we can do some court intrigue stuff there. The Doctor summoned home to be executed. A traitor in their midst, that kind of thing. Have you seen I, Claudius?
SAWARD: No.
(Door bursts open)
LEVINE: Don’t forget the temporal grace!
BYRNE: Excuse me?
LEVINE: In Earthshock, guns were fired in the console room, but it’s meant to be in a state of temporal grace! We need a line to cover it!
SAWARD: No problem, we’ll do something about that.
LEVINE: And if the Doctor’s going home to be executed, we should say that’s only the second time that’s happened! ‘Cause it is y’know!
SAWARD: OK, thanks Ian.
LEVINE: And you should call one of the characters Colin! That will give you a handy LINK to the 1966/7 story The Highlanders!
BYRNE: What an odd thing to say.
LEVINE: Have you seen The Highlanders?
BYRNE: No.
LEVINE: Of course you haven’t! How could you? It was junked years ago!
SAWARD: (leading him to the door). OK, thanks Ian.
LEVINE: And mention Romana! And Leela’s wedding!
SAWARD: Yes, we’ll mention them all. Thanks again. (Closes door)
BYRNE: What an extraordinary fellow. Who is he?
SAWARD: He’s our unpaid series continuity adviser.
BYRNE: You have an unpaid series continuity adviser?
LEVINE (OOV): And bring back Tegan!
SAWARD: Oh, that’s right. We need to bring back Tegan. She’s a companion we don’t pay a regular fee to use. She’s coming back after we dropped her off in the last year’s finale. Have you seen Time-Flight?
BYRNE: No.
SAWARD: It’s, um… Well it’s really something. And the same director’s going to do your story.
BYRNE: Oh that is good news.
SAWARD: Great. Well, I’m sure you’ll do a terrific job on it. Thanks for coming in, look forward to the script and I’ll see you NEXT TIME.
BYRNE: Super. How do I get out again?
SAWARD: Straight out this door – mind our unpaid series continuity adviser – and Turn Left.

Companions, growing pains and The Highlanders (1966/7).

highlanders

Three companions is too many, so the accepted line goes. Rubbish, say I. I love a four hand TARDIS crew. Not enough plot to go around? Not if you write it properly. Not enough time for character development? I, and you too I think, know all there is to know about Adric, Tegan and Nyssa. They’d never make that mistake these days? Except for when they had Amy, Rory and River.

The Highlanders brings the four strong TARDIS crew back to Doctor Who; since The Chase two years earlier the Doctor had generally got by with two travelling companions. In the show’s early years, three companions were a practical necessity; cameras couldn’t move fast enough between sets to follow one or two characters through a story – you needed lots of familiar faces ready to go on sets in Lime Grove. But the show had clearly got around this and two companions, one male, one female, was working fine. (And indeed would work well again from The Evil of the Daleks to the end of Troughton’s era). So why go back to four regulars now? I want to talk about all four of them, but I think the answer to my question lies in our two young male companions.

Let’s start with Jamie (Frazer Hines). The Highlanders is his debut story and the tale goes that he so impressed the production team while they were making it, that they made a last minute decision to add him to the regular cast.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of this story. No doubt it certainly happened, but it’s hard to see what compelling reason there was to add a new companion at this point, particularly a historical one (given the difficulties the previous production team had fitting Trojan escapee Katarina into the series), let alone another young man (given that they already had Michael Craze playing Ben).

Compounding my suspicions is that Jamie doesn’t get that much to do in The Highlanders, spending much of the time imprisoned and talking plot details. Spunky highland lass Kirsty (Hannah Gordon) gets a greater slice of the action. So it seems strange that Jamie would stand out as a character so good you couldn’t leave him behind (although of course with hindsight we know that Frazer Hines would go on to be a brilliant companion and an indispensable part of the Troughton era).

No, I think it’s more likely that producer Innes Lloyd and script editor Gerry Davis had a problem with Ben. Quite what that was, I don’t know; although the part is occasionally overegged with a few too many forced cockney-isms, Craze always gave a decent performance, as far as I can see/hear. But Lloyd and Davis were ruthlessly unsentimental when it came to the regular cast. They had no sooner joined the series than they dumped long term sidekick Steven (Peter Purves), and two episodes later – mid story! – Dodo (Jackie Lane) became extinct. They even managed to prise William Hartnell from the title role two stories before. I don’t think any of the new crew would have felt particularly secure under this regime.

In recent years, Polly actress Anneke Wills has revealed that as her and Craze’s contracts were ending, Lloyd approached her to stay on with Troughton and Hines; more proof that Jamie was intended to be Ben’s replacement. In fact it’s surprising Lloyd didn’t simply dispense with Ben as soon as possible; it’s not hard to imagine Ben catching a ship home at the end of The Underwater Menace. But perhaps the complexity of the forthcoming scripts, and the difficulties of replacing a modern day bloke with a 18th century piper meant it was easier to shoehorn Jamie into sci-fi tales like The Moonbase and The Macra Terror than rapidly rewrite scripts nearing production.

So it’s ironic that The Highlanders is a pretty good story for Ben. It’s true that like Jamie he spends a lot of it incarcerated, but he gets plenty of good moments, like ripping up Solicitor Grey’s slavery contracts and escaping from Trask’s ship apres dunking. He works well as a plot function – someone to get into trouble, get out of trouble and be a foil for the Doctor – and Craze plays him with a pleasing, terrier-like insistence. But ultimately, the series doesn’t need both Ben and Jamie. But the unique combination a TARDIS crew with two young men at least gives fans the opportunity for some eye opening slash fiction (just Google it, you know you want to. Just don’t blame me for what you find).

But neither Ben nor Jamie are the star companion in the The Highlanders; that position is definitely Polly’s. This is a brilliant story for her. Polly could sometimes be a whimperer and is famous for being the one sent to make coffee in Cyberman stories. But here she’s smart (noticing Kirsty’s ring, which becomes one of the story’s McGuffins), resourceful (capturing Ffinch by luring him into a big hole) and crafty (disguising herself as a way to gain information about the whereabouts of the Doctor and Ben… Albeit she disguises herself as a prostitute (this again! See The Next Doctor)).

There’s a lovely bit in Episode Four when she’s reunited with the Doctor and Ben and they are planning to liberate the highlanders trapped on Trask’s ship. After Polly’s catalytic role in the story’s first three parts, the usual patriarchy is threatening to reassert itself, with the men planning how they’ll undertake the raid, leaving Polly and Kirsty behind. At this point, Polly flatly refuses to be left out, and the plan is changed. Good for her – she has owned this story, it would have been a crime to sideline her for its conclusion. In fact, aside from The Aztecs and maybe The Crusade, I can’t think of another sixties story which makes as good use of a female companion.

And the fourth and most fascinating of our four person crew is Patrick Troughton’s magnificent Doctor, here on his second outing. All Doctors change from their initial conception; some mellow, some blossom. But their early stories always show an interpretation which is very different from where they end up. Think McCoy in Paradise Towers or Smith in The Beast Below. The stories from early in their reign end up as curios, showing us the paths partially explored, but otherwise left untaken.

The Highlanders gives us a unique version of the second Doctor, one closer to the character’s original conception than even his debut story. Here the Doctor utterly refuses to answer a question directly, he never shares his plans and his constantly adopting new identities,  putting on accents and dressing up. He acts entirely unpredictably; at one point he goes asleep in the middle of the story, much to Polly’s exasperation. And he’s violent; even though it’s a comic turn he repeatedly bangs Perkins’ head against a table in Episode 2 and the story’s problem is solved when he supplies a wheelbarrow load of weapons to the trapped highlanders.

But ultimately, a quixotic Doctor, not sharing any of his plans, acting seemingly randomly, doesn’t fit the show’s format which needs the Doctor to be a hero. In the very next story, we’ll see him reverting to type; being much less of an enigma than he is here and acting in a much more Doctorly way. And that’s the way it’ll stay all the way to The War Games. So that’s one of the joys of The Highlanders, savouring Troughton’s tricky performance, knowing it’ll never be quite the same again.

LINKS to The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe: in both, the Doctor expresses his love of hats. And because Amy features briefly in TDTWATW, they both feature Scots.

NEXT TIME: Damnable business! We travel to that region in space known to the ancients as the Arc of Infinity.

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

wardrobe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Motivation, magic and Battlefield (1989)

battlefield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny, scary and The Time Warrior (1973)

Time Warrior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEXT TIME: Boom! Boom? BOOM! Battlefield.

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