Tag Archives: bill

Depression, determination and The Eaters of Light (2017)

eaters of light

Can you imagine being asked back to a job you last did 28 years ago? In my case, I had a very brief career as a waiter at a smart restaurant back then. It involved two nights of serving vegetables using silver service, navigating around the warring, slightly sozzled husband and wife team who ran the joint, and being locked inside a walk-in refrigerator in a hazing ritual. Surprisingly, I wasn’t invited back for second weekend, and it would be even more surprising if I were to be asked back now.

Rona Munro’s career as a writer is staggeringly more accomplished than mine as a waiter, but it was still a surprise to hear that she was to become the first writer from 20th century Doctor Who to write for its 21st century regeneration. Actors, directors, costumiers and special effects staffers have all made the transition. But given how different the show is in focus, pace and structure, it’s always seemed like it would be a difficult leap for a writer to make. And 28 years is quite a gap; even in the classic series that gambit would never have been contemplated. It would be like Andrew Cartmel asking David Whitaker to write for season 27. (“David, we only have 14 episodes a season now. We can’t spend 15 minutes talking about the food machine!”)

Back when Munro was writing for the show, the Doctor was played by a brooding Scotsman, his assistant was a contemporary, streetwise girl who he was educating in the ways of the universe, the Master was undergoing a complete physical change and ratings were on the slide. Plus ça change. So it makes sense that her first story, Survival and her second, The Eaters of Light, share similar concerns.

Both are about creatures breaking through portals from other worlds to make murderous attacks on human prey. And both concern groups of teenagers struggling to understand and to deal with these alien incursions. 28 years ago, Munro demonstrated her ability to write lyrically and symbolically – about the need for a home, about sexual awakening and using intelligence to prove the old “survival of the fittest” maxim wrong. Here, I think she’s presenting a story of teens dealing with despair.

It centres on two characters, both baby-faced leaders of their tribes: Kar (Rebecca Benson), chief of the Picts and Lucius (Brian Vernel), leader of the remaining scraps of the Ninth Legion. Both have been floored by the slaughter of their comrades: Kar’s people were decimated by the Romans, Lucius’s legion by the lone Eater that Kar unleashed upon them. In the absence of older, wiser heads, they have been pushed into leadership roles, and both are plainly terrified.

In these characters, the allegorical side of the Eaters becomes clear; as creatures which feed on light but then suck that light away from others, they are stand-ins for depression. In a pair of consecutive scenes, our two young heroes are forced to confront the source of their troubles. Bill (Pearl Mackie) points out to Lucius that hiding out in a cave is not going to help anything, and that he needs to regroup and go on the offensive. Next, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) tells Kar that it’s time to face up to her situation and fight back. “I’m afraid,” she admits. “But you’ve still got to face your beast anyway,” says the Doctor, never one for letting people off the hook.

Sufferers of mental illness will know the futility of being told, “just pull yourself together and feel better.” I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. What Bill and the Doctor are doing is helping Lucius and Kar recognise that although their problems are dauntingly huge, something needs to be done. Their problems can’t be sidestepped or hidden from, and that a personal decision to “face the beast” needs to be made. In this way, we see the turning points in both these young people’s stories. We see the moment where they get back up off the mat and decide to fight the force which is stealing their light. Good for them.

I’m not so sure about the ending though. Kar and Lucius are now able to speak to and understand each other, thanks to the Doctor’s powers of language translation. This enables them to sympathise with each other’s plight, in a kind of live example of the “sit down and talk” approach extolled at the end of The Zygon Inversion. They then decide to join forces and dive into a rejected title sequence to fight off the Eaters one by one. This will apparently go on until the end of time, because time moves faster inside the portal than out. But at a going rate of 70 years per defeat of each beast, and only a handful of brave fighters entering the fray, I can’t make the maths work.

Still, that’s not the most pressing problem. Surely once they’re cut off from Doctor they’ll lose their multilingual abilities. Difficult enough to coordinate a joint attack against a swirling pack of dimension jumping nasties at the best of times, let alone when you can’t understand what your newfound comrades are saying. But then again maybe “argh!” “ow!” and “gerroff, I’m having all the light sucked out of me” are universal.

The Picts also remember to take a couple of pipers down the cosmic plughole with them, which seems like an unnecessary luxury for such a dangerous mission. “Hey, band! Play that one I like, will ya? It’ll really help pass the time while I’m fighting for my life!” But that allows one of the episode’s more mystical elements – music emanating through the hillside – to make a kind-of sense. Except that again, isn’t that music still being played in a slower time stream than in the real world? Wouldn’t it be like listening to a record at super slow speed?

I shouldn’t be spoiling things. As the Doctor explains to Missy (Michelle Gomez, in an all-too-brief appearance), only the joyless can’t hear the music around them. It’s another metaphor for depression; Missy has to learn again to tune into that music which springs from the ordinary beauty of life. When she does, she’s moved to tears, but the sense is that she’s better off by going through the experience and coming out the other side. Again, those going through a mental illness journey of their own may sympathise.

Survival was about this too. Characters stuck in a dead-end suburb, battling with the slow, inescapable trudge of daily life. Characters who went through terrible ordeals, but came away from them invigorated and reconnected with the world around them. Characters who fought off ravenous beasts and were changed by the process. Munro has lost none of her ability to tell stories across multiple levels and to use fantasy to reflect on our own reality. Let’s hope it’s not 28 years before we hear from her again.

LINK TO Victory of the Daleks: aliens interfering in historical battles.

NEXT TIME… it’s back to the dark places of the inside for Kinda.

 

 

 

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Bill, agency and The Pilot (2017)

pilot 

It’s odd, but we just don’t get that many “current Doctor meets new Companion” episodes in 21st Century Doctor Who. We get episodes where the whole cast is new, like Rose and The Eleventh Hour (and I presume, Jodie Whittaker’s debut ep). And we get staggered entries like Donna’s, Rory’s and Clara’s. But The Pilot is the first time since Smith and Jones that we have a straightforward introduction for a new companion. Twice in ten years, which seems unusual compared to the original series where such opening nights happened on a regular basis.

It’s a Doctor Who subgenre which stretches back to 1965’s The Rescue. It seems strange to say it, but it’s that ancient two-parter which The Pilot reminds me of most. Perhaps it’s just that The Rescue sets the template for new companion stories so comprehensively that there’s no reason to deviate too far from it. Doctor meets girl (well, they’re usually girls), both have gaps in their lives the other can fill, there’s an adventure to be had, “it’s bigger on the inside” and off they go.

The companion in question is Bill, played with verve by Pearl Mackie. Like Vicki in The Rescue, her parents are long dead and she’s desperately lonely, even with her substitute parent nearby. Like Vicki, when the adventure engulfs her, the protagonist is someone close to her; then it was Vicki’s fellow castaway Bennett, here’s it’s Bill’s crush Heather (Stephanie Hyam). And like Vicki, she quickly strikes up an unlikely friendship with a curmudgeonly, old Doctor (Peter Capaldi ) who will take her under his wing and become a tutor in the ways of the universe for her. (Although neither of them see the need to investigate the spaceship which has been landing surreptitiously in St. Luke’s university, only its sentient oil leak. Marks deducted for missing the big picture!)

Who Bill is not, is Clara. This shouldn’t be surprising; lots of companions are conceived in reaction to the one they replace. But here, for some reason, a complete change felt needed. Clara was complicated – from the start of her tour of TARDIS duty where she was splintered across the Doctor’s own history to the end, where she was a failed would-be Doctor, dead but not dead, etc etc. Bill is much simpler: she’s a bright, friendly but quietly melancholy girl, who’s a bit of an oddball. The Doctor sees in her unmet potential and that’s enough to reignite his passion for travelling the universe.

The actors who play them are also intrinsically different. Jenna Coleman came from the world of TV soaps, with an air of magazine glamour about her. Pearl Mackie came to the show from theatre, specifically the presentation of new plays. Doctor Who is her first major TV gig, so she’s slightly less polished and less perfectly formed than Coleman was for TV stardom. But this background is perfect for Bill, who is an edgier and less self-confident character than Clara. And Bill seems like a character more grounded in the real world than Clara, and for whatever reason, this seems to suit Capaldi’s grizzled teacher of a Doctor; Bill needs and wants to be taught, whereas Clara seemed to already know it all.

There are other companion echoes as well. With her badged jacket and her eagerness to be the Doctor’s student, she’s reminiscent of Ace. Like Jo Grant, she’s cheeky and perky and prone to making mistakes. Of course, there’s a deliberate visual reference to Susan. Plus she’s named after Billie Piper, who brought that other working class, diamond in the rough companion Rose to screen. She’s an amalgam of many who have gone before… just not Clara.

(On the other hand, she does end up gaining an immortal girlfriend and running away with her to see the universe, so she does eventually end up like Clara. I like to think the four of them get together at bars and make fun of the old grey hair and eyebrows:

BILL: Get this. Once he took me to a nautically themed cafe in Cardiff and tried to tell me it was Australia!

CLARA: That’s nothing. He once tried to convince me that the moon was an egg. The Moon!)

As has been noted before around these parts, fandom’s feelings about Clara are mixed, but Bill, it seems, was an instant hit. Clearly there’s something about Bill which a significant group of fans prefer to Clara, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Certainly Bill seems to be a humbler, more down-to-earth character than Clara and I have a sneaking suspicion that some thought her constant attempts to be or to teach the Doctor made her a bit too big for her boots.

It’s not a sentiment I share, but I wonder if Bill is in part a reaction to Clara’s Doctorly ambitions? And that leads me to this worrying observation: are we actually more comfortable with a companion who is subordinate to the Doctor? I would argue that as breezy and charming as Bill is, she is a far more passive character than Clara. Whereas Clara would (in general) take the initiative in her stories, often instigating her own plot lines, Bill is much more likely to follow the Doctor’s lead, or to wait for him to act before she will. Sure, this is a symptom of her newness to the Doctor’s world and also indicative of the fact that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is also around to share the action with.

Let me offer a few examples. What positive, independent action does Bill take in Smile, other than to find the database of exposition? What at all in Oxygen? Or in Knock Knock? It’s not until The Pyramid at the End of the World that she impacts a plot in any meaningful way, through her appeal to the Monks to cure the Doctor, but this is made as a last resort. She is more integral in The Lie of the Land, but in World Enough and Time, she’s a victim the whole way through – things happen to her, she doesn’t make things happen. I can’t help but think that if Clara had been the companion in Thin Ice, she, not the Doctor, would have punched that racist. How much more would it have meant if Bill had slugged that sucker?

What I’m suggesting is that in Clara we had someone who challenged the Doctor and in Bill we have someone who complements him. And I think (judging from what I read on social media… admittedly, never a great research technique) we seem to prefer the latter. Generalisation’s a curse, and there’s always the possibility that Bill is simply a more likable character than Clara to factor in. But if we do prefer the old fashioned, patriarchal notion of the Doctor as a learned teacher and the companion as his devoted student, we might as well be watching The Rescue.

LINK TO: The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. People made out of goop.

NEXT TIME… would you care for some tea? Broadsword to Danny Boy, it’s time for the Victory of the Daleks.

 

Metamorphosis, antithesis and World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls (2017)

weat

There was a moment, not long before World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls went to air, when a preview clip was released, in which Peter Capaldi delivered an innocent line which was the cause of much derision and consternation. It was:

DOCTOR: Don’t forget to subscribe to the official Doctor Who YouTube channel.

No, it wasn’t. It was:

DOCTOR: It’s a Cyberman. A Mondasian Cyberman!

The problem was that made-up adjective “Mondasian.” On Twitter, there was widespread mockery. Fans jeered the Doctor’s use of a term which only a fan would understand; it was an unnecessary, anorak-y embellishment. Fans are often sensitive to indications that the show is catering too closely to them at the expense of the general public. That way, so accepted fan wisdom goes, lies the appalling self referential indulgence of the mid 80s and the slow demise of old school Who. By daring to first invent and then actually use an adjectival form of the name of a fictional planet, the show attracted open derision from its most ardent supporters. Well, so far, so fandom.

The irony is that Peter Capaldi, who dared utter that newly created word, is also a fan. Specifically, he’s a fan of Mondasian Cybermen. As an 8 year old boy, he watched them stagger across his 405 line monochrome TV set in The Tenth Planet. He requested their return to the show, and Steven Moffat concocted a way to bring them back. If the show suddenly looked and sounded like fans were running the asylum, well, the point is, they were. In that environment, it’s kind of impossible to not get words like Mondasian.

I can see why they said it though, and it’s not to prove Capaldi’s or Moffat’s fan credentials. It’s actually for casual viewers, who might not recognise these old style Cybermen as the same as the sort they’ve been used to since they returned to the modern series. That line is reassuring those viewers that yes, these odd, stocking faced things with lamps on their heads are Cybermen, just a different type. If it comes off as a piece of fannish indulgence, fine, but the intention behind that line’s more practical than that. Still, it says something about fandom’s great need for being taken seriously, amplified by social media, that this became a Mondasian storm in a Cyber teacup.

More worrying is now presumably we have to get grumpy at all the other made up adjectives we’ve adopted over the decades. Goodbye Gallifreyan. Sayonara Skarovian. Ta ta Taran, Tythonian, Tellurian and all the rest.

***

Capaldi’s also a fan of Kafka. He recently produced an illustration for a new edition of the Czech writer’s classic novella Metamorphosis, and that book is an element of the plot of Capaldi’s short film, Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Metamorphosis is the story of a young man who wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a grotesque insect creature, and the subsequent torment it causes him and his family.

It’s almost too obvious to say that Doctor Who is inherently about change, but World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls is infused with it. In fact, it’s about a particular sort of change, one where characters are changed into a new form inimical to their original selves. The story’s most chilling image is of those Cybermen as works in progress, waiting in a cold hospital ward, crying out in pain, but with their volume knobs turned down. That’s Metamorphosis right there. But then it’s taken a step further, and the characters who are transformed into nightmarish reflections of themselves are confronted by that change, in a way where both versions exist simultaneously.

Take, for instance, Missy (Michelle Gomez) and the Master (John Simm). Both are the same person, with the familiar badinage we recognise from multiple multi-Doctor stories (only saucier). The difference here is that Missy is changing into something the Master is not; someone with compassion, who wants to do the right thing – even to stand in battle alongside the Doctor. This existential angst is too much for either one to bear, and they end up killing each other, rather than let the alternative version of each other exist.

And of course, there’s Bill (Pearl Mackie), with a hole the size of Mondas shot in her chest, transformed gradually into a Cyberman. It’s a particularly cruel fate for a companion who has been so singularly individual, marked out by her style, humour and warmth, to become a soulless tin man. Like Gregor, the insect-man in Metamorphosis, she’s locked away, isolated from other human beings. Her personality remains intact, inside that Cyber suit and we viewers see her as she still sees herself, so we get to see the two versions of her, not side by side, but shot by shot. “I don’t want to live if I can’t be me anymore,” she tells the Doctor, expressing this clear hatred for what she’s become.

The Doctor too is changing. With all these people around him, changing into their abhorred opposites, he can’t help but resist the inevitable. His regeneration starts here, after an electrified Cyber hug, but he does everything he can to delay it. It mustn’t help that he’s surrounded by Cybermen, walking, stomping symbols of enforced physical change. Cybermen became all Cyber when they started replacing their organs with new versions, as a way of prolonging their lives. They’re as twisted a reflection of regeneration as the show’s ever produced.

To me, this explains the Doctor’s sudden need to name check his past Cyber adventures, while picking them off like targets at a fairground stall. “Telos! Voga!” etc (though I notice he leaves out some of the less auspicious examples. Can you imagine? “Space station W3! Windsor! That department store I worked in for 15 minutes!”) because he’s defining himself as the anti-Cyberman. He’s their nemesis; as he said to Missy and the Master, he’s always been the only way to destroy a shedload of the buggers. He’ll be damned if he’s going to follow their lead, and transform himself into his own antithesis.

***

Where, I wonder, is the 8 year old girl, watching these episodes on her iPad, who will one day pull off her own transformation, do a Capaldi and become the Doctor? Who will one day be filming Cybermen stories of her very own, when she says, “remember the Mondasian Cybermen?” I suspect she won’t be embarrassed by the adjective. I suspect it will distinguish this episode as an epic; the one with the Cyberised companion, the two Masters and the dying Doctor.

Ages ago I asked if The Tenth Planet was brilliant or rubbish. When it’s still inspiring Doctor Who this vivid, dark and daring fifty years on, its brilliance is proven. So yeah, let’s call them Mondasian Cybermen. Because by being distinct from all the others (“Glass chins! Visible brains! Those skinny ones from the comic strip!”) and by lingering so long in so many memories, they’ve earned their own adjective.

LINK TO Boom Townboth feature villains facing moral qualms.

NEXT TIME… I know! Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.

 

Brian, Steven and Smile (2017)

smile

BRIAN MINCHIN: OK, love the plans for Episode One. Great start to our season planning conference, Steven. See, not as hard as all that, is it? Steven? Steven, get away from the window.

STEVEN MOFFAT: Is this locked? Why is it locked? I just need a breath of fresh air. Just a short walk to the shops!

MINCHIN: Now Steven we’ve been through all this. All the exits are locked until we get the season mapped out.

MOFFAT: This is ridiculous! We’ve got plenty of time. I don’t know what everyone’s worried about.

MINCHIN: We start shooting tomorrow.

MOFFAT: Exactly! That leaves all of today and tonight and a bit of the morning! Plus I can keep writing while they’re shooting!

MINCHIN: Look, you know the deal. Give us one more season – just one – and we’ll release you from your contract. That door’s also locked, put the crowbar away.

MOFFAT: Just one more season? Then I’m free?

MINCHIN: And won’t it be nice to have all the scripts ready ahead of time?

MOFFAT: Nice for you, maybe. Look, there’s Benedict Cumberbatch!

MINCHIN: I’m not falling for that, Steven. Now sit down, relax and tell me about Episode Two.

MOFFAT: All right. OK then. So it’s set on this planet, a future human colony, where you have to smile or you get killed.

MINCHIN: Riiiight…

MOFFAT: What’s wrong with that?

MINCHIN: Nothing. It’s great. Keep going.

MOFFAT: No, what’s wrong with it? That’s genuine 100% Moffat genius, that is!

MINCHIN: It’s just… that’s The Happiness Patrol, isn’t it?

MOFFAT: No it’s not! It’s completely different.

MINCHIN: How is it different?

MOFFAT: Well there’s no Happiness Patrol, for a start. No Helen A or Fifi. And certainly no Kandyman!

MINCHIN: I’m certainly glad to hear that! Can you imagine? A novelty robot with some cutesy, gimmicky design quirk. What is the monster, by the way?

MOFFAT: I think I see a trap door over there…

MINCHIN: Steven…

MOFFAT: *mumbles*

MINCHIN: Louder, Steven.

MOFFAT: Emojibots.

MINCHIN: Robots which communicate via emojis?

MOFFAT: But they’re not like the Kandyman, OK? For a start, there are heaps of them and they’re white, silent and featureless.

MINCHIN: So they’re more like the Handbots then?

MOFFAT: No Brian, they’re a completely new idea!

MINCHIN: OK, fine.

MOFFAT: And anyway, they’re not even the monster. The emojibots are just the interface for thousand of microscopic robots which make up the buildings of this colony.

MINCHIN: So they’re like the nanogenes in The Empty Child?

MOFFAT: No, Brian. These ones strip the flesh from people’s bones leaving only their skeletons behind!

MINCHIN: Like the Vashta Nerada.

MOFFAT: Look, do you want 12 episodes this year or will we have to make another series of Class?

MINCHIN: No, no! All fine, let’s keep going. What else happens in it?

MOFFAT: Right, so you have to keep smiling, right? Or the bots kill you. So imagine smiling all the time, even when those around you are dying. The physical strain of having to smile through all that… the tension will be palpable! And look, Capaldi will have to actually smile, that alone will be worth the cost of admission.

MINCHIN: It’s just that…

MOFFAT: Oh, here we go!

MINCHIN: Well, that’s Blink, isn’t it? Not being able to do an involuntary physical action on pain of death. And you did it again in Deep Breath. And kind of in Last Christmastoo, where people couldn’t think about the dream crab things.

MOFFAT: Yeah, but it’s still good!

MINCHIN: Hey, that’s a thought: there are no dream states or people trapped in virtual worlds or anything again?

MOFFAT: No, of course not. Not until Episode Six.

MINCHIN: I hope I remembered to bring the Panadol before I locked that door. Ok, what happens next?

MOFFAT: So the Doctor and Bill meet this young kid…

MINCHIN: Of course they do.

MOFFAT: who leads them to a buried spaceship…

MINCHIN: a LINK to Closing Time

MOFFAT: where cryogenically frozen humans, who have fled from a global catastrophe are all waking up…

MINCHIN: Hello, The Ark in Space

MOFFAT: and fighting breaks out between the humans and their former, and now self-aware servants…

MINCHIN: via The Rebel Flesh…

MOFFAT: before the Doctor works out that it’s all due to…

MINCHIN: Malfunctioning technology?

MOFFAT: Great! Yes! And then the Doctor…

MINCHIN: Reboots the system?

MOFFAT: How did you know?

MINCHIN: Lucky guess. I can see you trying to get that ventilation shaft open, Steven.

MOFFAT: (acidly) Just checking for new, un-cliched ideas.

MINCHIN: Seriously? In a ventilation shaft?

MOFFAT: Anyway, that’s Episode Two.

MINCHIN: What will we call it? The Happiness Robots? The Nanobot Patrol?

MOFFAT: I was thinking just Smile.

MINCHIN: Sure, again like Blink and Deep Breath and Listen and so on. Well, we can make it look a bit exotic, emphasise the differences…

MOFFAT: Look, give me a break Minchin! I’ve been on this show since 2005. I’ve written more Doctor Who than anyone ever. Every year there’s another dozen episodes to fill. So yes, I’m going to, occasionally, repeat myself. It’s gonna happen.

MINCHIN: Fair enough. Let’s get someone else in to write it then. Who do you want?

MOFFAT: I was thinking FCB.

MINCHIN: FC Barcelona?

MOFFAT: No, but ooh… we should shoot it in Spain! But I meant Frank Cottrell Boyce.

MINCHIN: You’re right, I’m sure everyone’s forgiven him by now. OK, so Episode Three?

MOFFAT: Right, so, set at the last great frost fair.

MINCHIN: Oh, good, so like you mentioned in A Good Man Goes to War.

MOFFAT: And beneath the Thames, there’s a giant marine creature being tortured…

MINCHIN: So, like The Beast Below?

MOFFAT: I swear, I will erase you from Doctor Who, Brian!

*awkward pause*

MINCHIN: The Happiness Patrol, eh?

MOFFAT: Count yourself lucky it wasn’t Silver Nemesis.

*door opens*

FLUNKIE: Steven, can you sign off on this? Someone wants to complete Shada again, this time using woollen puppets and dioramas.

MOFFAT: Yes, of course. *bolts through the door*

MINCHIN: *sighs* Get Chibnall on the phone. See if he can start early.

NEXT TIME… and I was having such a nice day. We take a trip down to Boom Town.

Exits, Isms and Empress of Mars (2017)

empress

So, it’s 2017 and Mark Gatiss wants to write an episode with Ice Warriors and which refers back to the Pertwee era at every available opportunity. The real question is, why aren’t we on Peladon?

Surely with Brexit looming, here’s a chance to return to Doctor Who’s long tradition of commenting on current political issues. Not to mention a chance to return to leather-clad soldiers, badger wigged extras and furry subterranean beasts. There could be a Nigel Farage style villain as the inevitable high priest. It’s The Exit of Peladon (well, they surely would never call it a Pexit).C’mon, add an unconvincing fight scene for the Doctor and we’re there!

But of course, it wasn’t to be, and with good reason. For one thing, it’s just too obvious. For another, the BBC wouldn’t dare court controversy on such a hot topic with its own existence and remit so politicized at the moment. And for a third, Doctor Who can just be more subtle than that. Even though it’s not The Exit of Peladon, this story has been influenced by Brexit, and has much to say about nationalism.

In fact, there are a few different isms to navigate through here, all of them embodied in the group of Victorian-era soldiers camped out in the Martian underground for this story. Their nationalism – putting Britain’s interests (however they are interpreted) first – is inherent. It’s these characters’ starting point.

From there, they, particularly the fervent Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), also exhibit imperialism – the belief that the British empire should extend its reach through acquiring new territories. And through their treatment of Friday (Richard Ashton), they also show their colonialism, a belief in the inherent cultural superiority of a colonial race of people over an indigenous people.

(The reference to Robinson Crusoe, a book often criticised for its colonialist attitude, is clear, but it’s a shame Friday never gets to reclaim his original Martian name, a step which could have slapped down the soldiers for their enforced domestication of him. What is it about Gatiss and monsters serving tea?)

Brexit may not, at heart, be about imperialism or colonialism, but I think it’s fair to say it’s about nationalism. It’s reflecting a political swing towards right-wing nationalism around the world, whose other expressions include Trump, Le Pen and here in Australia, the resurgence of One Nation. Don’t worry, randomers, this isn’t about to get super political. But I’m saying that this is the environment that Empress of Mars was made in. And if its basic message, unsubtle as it is, is colonialism is bad, it’s underlying theme is, and so is the nationalism it springs from.

This critique of nationalism shows up in the soldiers themselves. They’re a rum lot, and that’s for sure. Godsacre (Anthony Calf) is a coward and a deserter. Catchlove, a warmongering zealot. Jackdaw (Ian Beattie), a pillager. (His thieving of a small blue crystal from the Ice Queen’s tomb is not just a call back to Metebelis, but a potent indicator of invading forces wanting to take a land’s natural resources for themselves). Fine and upstanding examples of her Majesty’s army, they are not. They fit the stereotype about Britain’s colonial forces, in that they were not always made up of the best soldiers available. As symbols of Britain’s colonial past, their personal shortcomings reflect poorly on nationalism as an idea. Greed, treachery and conflict spring from this, this story says.

It’s not all that different from Gatiss’ last Ice Warrior story, Cold War, where a bunch of Russian submariners, some good, some bad, came up against the physical and technological might of the Ice Warriors. All out war loomed, but there the Doctor convinced the Martian General to leave in peace. The two opposing forces walked away from that flashpoint.

Here, something quite different happens. As fighting breaks out, Friday undermines his own side to argue the Earth soldiers’ case. And Godsacre kills chief hawk Catchlove, and pledges allegiance to a new queen, Iraxxa (Adele Lynch). It’s another twist on the theme of “it doesn’t have to end in war” and it shows the complexity in the characters of Friday and Godsacre. But whereas the Cold War Russians are allowed to float away, pride more or less intact, here the British soliders capitulate.

It’s a funny ending. What life can those soldiers expect on Mars? A short and uncomfortable one, probably. But over and above that, it’s a repudiation of imperialism; they came as conquerers and stayed as servants.

It’s also a rejection of another ism: isolationalism. Rather than struggle against the inevitable, these men choose to interact with their interplanetary neighbours. Perhaps a partnership between the Martian and um, Earthian forces, rather than a submission to sovereignty might have been a more satisfying ending, but still the point is made. Plus, it adds a wry double meaning to the former war cry of “God save the queen,” now repurposed as a castaway’s rescue call. Reach out, this story says, rather than fight back.

Still, things might change again. In a shout out to remainers and Doctor Who fans alike, the story ends with Mars making contact with the Galactic Federation, the Pertwee era’s version of the EU. Who knows what will happen when Alpha Centauri (Ysanne Churchman) and its pals arrive? Mars is up for membership and maybe Godsacre and his men will be the freed from their allegiance to the Queen to become Earth’s first representatives at this union.

Their horizons are about to expand far wider than they ever imagined. It’s may not be The Exit of Peladon, but we know where Empress of Mars’ sympathies lie.

LINK to The Bells of St John. It features a monster from Classic Who Season 5 (which, as it happens, will work for our next story too), but why stop there? Why not include the links to The Curse of Peladon, The Monster of Peladon(mining equipment as a weapon, anyone?), Day of the Daleks (RHIP), The Green Death (Jackdaw stealing a blue crystal), The Tomb of the Cybermen, Tooth and Claw, Sleep No Moreand a line which sounds suspiciously like one from The Robots of Death. (“They could slaughter whole civilisations, yet weep at the crushing of a flower. “ cribs “It can punch a fist sized hole in six inch armour plate or take the crystals from a snowflake one by one”). Then there’s The Thing, Zulu, The Terminator, The Vikings, Star Wars and freakin’ Frozen. A parliament of references!

NEXT TIME: Stubborn old goat! We’re caught in The Web of Fear.

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’s blindness 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 there 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 safer ground.  So here 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.

Early morning streaming, Whovians (2017) and Knock Knock (2017)

It’s 5:30 on a Sunday morning. I am awake, due to my life long habit of waking naturally by the time I know I have to be up. All is dark and quiet. I sit up in bed, reach for my iPad and headphones. It’s time for a new episode on Doctor Who, delivered fresh and perky from ABC iView.

It’s a ritual made familiar over the last few years, since the ABC has been fast-tracking new episodes of Doctor Who as they’re broadcast on BBC1. It’s the new way of watching Who, having taken over from Sunday night after the news, or if you could navigate through the ocean full of viruses and malware, bit torrenting.

When I was a youth, it used to be Monday to Friday, 6:30pm, which as I’ve mentioned before, is Australia’s version of Saturday teatime. Somehow though, I can’t see Big Finish producing audio promos in years to come harkening back nostalgically to watching the show this way. Can you imagine? It’s pre-dawn 2017 all over again! You’re hiding under the covers, hoping none of your family wake up!

If I’m lucky, I’ll get through the whole episode uninterrupted. If not, Master Spandrell will stumble in and sleepily climb into his parents’ bed and that will be the end of that. If not that, then Little Miss Spandrell might cry out from her bedroom, looking for an early start to the day. So I keep as quiet as I can, keep physical movement to a minimum and hope desperately to remain unnoticed.

This week’s episode is Knock Knock. And it’s been specifically designed to be consumed by nerds on tablets hoping to remain uninterrupted.

*****

Periodically Doctor Who adapts with a change in format. Spearhead from Space may be the first colour story, but it’s not until The Green Death that there’s a story conceived around being seen in colour. Ghost Light might be the first story designed for the VHS generation, a story you have to pause and rewind to understand. And the show’s 2005 series might be as much designed for consumption as a DVD boxset as a broadcast TV show.

In more recent years, we’ve had ancillary Doctor Who content designed to be watched on computer. It’s arguable which was the first such piece of content (as we call it these days) but The Night of the Doctor is definitely designed to be sought out online. Doctor Who you can’t watch on TV.

I watched the special binaural edition of Knock Knock, on my headphones, tucked up in bed, and very nice it was too. One specific knock made me involuntarily turn my head towards the supposed source. It’s an experience you can get on TV, by streaming from your tablet but to get the full effect (apparently) you need headphones. This is Doctor Who designed to be watched on your phone or iPad.

I suggest we get used to this. Doctor Who’s ratings are doomed to fall in future (although our new female Doctor – hooray! – should deliver an initial boost in numbers) and that has nothing to do with the quality of the show. The fact is all broadcast TV is losing viewers, and an increasing amount of people are watching TV shows on tablets and phones. It’s unsurprising there are special editions of Doctor Who for mobile devices; it’s only surprising that there’s not more of it.

How long, I wonder, until we get a spin off series delivered through catch up services like iPlayer and ABC iView only? When you think about how much time, money and effort went into one series of Class (which awkwardly straddled online and broadcast formats) an iPlayer only series may well offer a lower cost, less risky venture. It could lead to some narrative innovation too; freed of the requirement to fit into a 45 minute time slot, stories could be longer or shorter as the story demanded. Doctor Who for the commute home.

Then there’s factual content like Doctor Who Extra and The Doctor Who Fan Show both made for consumption across all devices, but I suspect mostly consumed on mobile. The show is building and nurturing its web-only fans. There must be fans out there now who have never watched an episode of the show on broadcast. Surely it’s only a matter of time before our first catch-up exclusive episode?

There’s a final destination here. We think of Doctor Who as a TV show, which is also available on other devices. Eventually it will stop being a TV show, and simply be a show, with broadcast TV being merely one way to watch it. If at all. It’s not inconceivable of a future where new Doctor Who is an internet only experience, the same as other streaming only shows.

All of which makes Whovians all the more strange.

*****

In Australia, series 10 was accompanied by a 30 minute home made show about watching and loving Doctor Who. It’s hosted by Rove McManus, one of Australia’s biggest TV stars, who had a highly successful evening variety show for years during the noughties, followed by a US chat show for a couple of years. He has always had something of the nerd about him, but he remains an unlikely host, let alone instigator, for a Doctor Who panel show. For one thing, he’s far too cool to display the Ming Mong level of fandom he clearly possesses. And for another, he’s far too expensive for the ABC.

He can only be doing this for the love of it, which is terrific. But Whovians seems to be exactly the sort of after party programming the BBC has been avoiding. Not only is it content they’d be more likely to put online, it’s actually mimicking what happens online after an episode going out live on air; a community of geeks wants to talk about it. It’s fun and its frothy and I love it, but the fact that it’s new broadcast content about Doctor Who seems to be directly the opposite direction that the show itself is heading in.

None of this is bad. It’s just that for a week in 2017 I watched an episode of Doctor Who designed not to be watched on TV, then tuned into a TV program to hear people talk about it. Welcome to the patchwork landscape of 21st century broadcast TV.

QUICK APOLOGETIC ASSESSMENT OF THE STORY WHICH IS THE SUBJECT OF, YET IGNORED BY, THIS POST: Spooky, exciting and a bit gross. But under no circumstances should you examine the plot too closely.

LINK TO The Ice Warriorsspooky mansions.

NEXT TIME: where do you get the milk? I get mine at the Asylum of the Daleks.