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Dates, fates and Boom Town (2005)

boomtown

In much the same way that 21st century Doctor Who used to have celebrity historicals, it also used to have “bottle shows”. As Russell T Davies explained in The Shooting Scripts, the bottle show is the cheap episode in a season. One of the side effects of having fewer episodes per season is that the budget seems better spread across each episode. If there’s a bottle show in series 9 and 10, it’s not immediately apparent.

Certainly not in the way that it’s apparent in Boom Town, the eleventh episode of the first series of Doctor Who’s modern run. Watching it again for the first time in yonks, I was struck by just how low-budget it looks. Davies claims that he wanted to show off Cardiff in this episode, in order to thank the city and its people for hosting the show, but sticking close to home is also the cheapest way to shoot something. Not for Boom Town exotic alien spaceships, CGI monsters or the London blitz brought to life. It’s a drama played out in council offices, restaurants and public squares.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like a setting guaranteed to captivate an audience. But Davies spots the opportunity to use those mundane backdrops in a story of interpersonal drama. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, pitch perfect) and Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, AKA Margaret (Annette Badlands, equally pitch perfect) spend the episode sparring verbally, as the Doctor prepares to pack her off for execution by her own kind. And as Davies has said, with two actors of this calibre, that’s all you need.

To save Cardiff from a catastrophic nuclear explosion, the Doctor must return Margaret to her home planet, where she faces fatal retribution. To save herself, Margaret must convince the Doctor to spare her.

In its understated way, Boom Town positions the Doctor in a stark new light; for once, he has a prisoner, who is begging him for her life. And despite the fact that Margaret is sly and treacherous throughout –  it turns out, she has engineered the whole sitation – her appeals are enough to give the Doctor (and the audience) pause for thought. This episode remains the one which most keenly questions the Doctor’s levels of mercy.

The crucial moment in the episode is when Margaret pleads that she’s capable of compassion, arguing that only that afternoon, she refrained from killing a pregnant woman. The Doctor’s response is shrewd but reveals more about him that he intended.

DOCTOR: You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.

MARGARET: Only a killer would know that.

The point Margaret makes is telling because she’s not relying on the mercy of a pure heart. The mercy of a killer is surely harder to secure than that of a simpler hero. Earlier in this same season, we saw the Doctor coldly watch as Cassandra was ripped apart, making no effort to save her, passing judgement on her for her crimes. So we know he’s prepared to draw a distinction between good and bad, and he won’t shy away from capital punishment, as long as he’s given the villain a chance to give up the game. For a person who is such a defender of life, he’s prepared to take other lives in that defence.

That’s an inherent contradiction in the Doctor that long term viewers are familiar with. The question that Boom Town poses is, will the Doctor relent and show Margaret the mercy he didn’t show Cassandra?

*****

While all this is going on, Rose (Billie Piper) is also on an awkward date. She’s summoned Mickey (Noel Clarke) to Cardiff to bring her passport, but it’s a ruse; she just wants to see him again. So they head off into the night to paint the town Welsh red. Not that I’ve ever been to Cardiff, so I shouldn’t really slag it off, but I notice this doesn’t take long and so they end up aimlessly wandering the streets, presumably looking for an open kebab van.

During all the time they spend eluding Cardiff’s nightlife, they recap on the state of their relationship. Initially, it looks like they might sneak away for a dirty overnighter, which would have been an unexpected innovation for the new series (they should watch out, though. We know what happens Doctor Who characters who sneak off for a quick shag.) But then it transpires that Mickey has hooked up with another girl next door and Rose isn’t at all pleased.

There’s a surprising amount of screen time devoted to these scenes; much more than would be given over to similar domestic drama these days. I mean, Amy Pond lost her baby in fewer scenes than this. But we never get to a resolution because soon enough the city is being torn asunder and Rose is racing back to the Doctor’s side. Mickey presumably has to go find a hotel on his own, which will be much less fun.

On the face of it, there’s not much linking the Rose/Mickey story and the Doctor/Margaret story. But if there is, perhaps it’s this: the whiff of sexism. It’s the women who are the instigators of trouble here. Rose and Margaret are the schemers, manipulating the men around them, hoping to have their cakes and eat them too. Neither of them get to do so, of course, but still, the impression is that the women are the ones playing the men.

We never get to find out if the Doctor would spare Margaret’s life. Without warning or explanation, a panel of the TARDIS console flips open and a white light turns her into an egg. She gets to live her life again, a second chance that Rose wants too; another admission that it’s the women of this piece who have sins to atone for.

But more to the point, the Doctor is spared facing the moral dilemma he’s been contemplating all episode. Like the much promised big explosion which never actually happens, so the question of how much mercy the Doctor has never gets answered. The boom fails to go off in Boom Town. Twice.

Still, worst off in this episode is Jack (John Barrowman), who spends most of it in the TARDIS fiddling with wires. If only he’d known his future Torchwood self was outside somewhere in Cardiff, standing precariously on buildings or wiping people’s memories, he could have found and hooked up with himself. Taken poor Mickey’s empty hotel room for a bit. You know he would have. Hopefully, he would have bought himself a drink first. If he could find somewhere open in Cardiff, of course.

LINK TO Smile: In both, the Doctor sits down for a meal.

NEXT TIME: I never will be able to find the words. But I’ll give it a shot anyway with World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Goosesteps, quicksteps and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)

empty-child

I’m thinking of a Doctor Who DVD box set – the World War II stories. It consists of Let’s Kill Hitler, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the first bit), The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the rest of it), Victory of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric. It could come in a special edition gas mask shaped tin. You could press a button and hear it say, ‘are you my Mummy?’ It would fly off the shelves like a Lancaster bomber or maybe float off gently like a barrage balloon.

Why has World War II proven such fertile ground in which to grow Doctor Who, particularly as conceived by Steven Moffat? On the face of it, it’s subject matter which should be too edgy for the series. Perhaps it’s because the two have long been connected.

When Doctor Who started, it was 18 years since the war had ended. Its influence was still being felt; in the series’ initial conception, you’ll recall, the Doctor was fleeing from a galactic war. The first Dalek story references the Nazis heavily, and the second imagines Britain overrun with fascist invaders. Even The doddery old Sensorites is a story of soldiers left behind, fighting a war long since over.

And when the show returned to 1963 for Remembrance of the Daleks, characters like Ratcliffe and Harry recalled the war; the novelisation has Rachel Jensen remembering surviving the blitz. So the genesis of this show is linked to the war, and to British pride of triumphing against overwhelming odds. In The Empty Child, the Doctor (U-boat captain Christopher Eccleston) gives voice to this pride:

Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it. Nothing. Until one, tiny, damp little island says no. No. Not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me.

William Hartnell’s Doctor never did end up running from that mysterious alien war, but Eccleston’s Doctor did. It’s odd that of all the stories in that first year of rejuvenated Who, this one, set in a war so close to the series’ home, is the one that dwells on the time war the least. Not at all in fact, even though our war veteran Doctor is smack in the middle of events which should feel grimly familiar. But that’s because cosmic angst is not on Moffat’s agenda.

No, he wants to scare children and get the Doctor laid.

***

The first part of that he does with consummate style. He begins with a haunting image: a five year old boy in a gas mask. This boy terrifies those around him, but his plaintiff cries resonate with any adult who has half a heart: ‘Please let me in, Mummy. I’m scared of the bombs’. Who wouldn’t want to embrace that child, take him in, make him safe?

But touching this boy is the one thing you can’t do. It’s the next of Moffat’s steps towards creating something really creepy. Touch the boy and you don’t quite die, but your life is emptied out of you. The next thing you know a gas mask is forcing its way up your throat and then your face becomes the gas mask. A physical amalgamation of flesh and object. There’s never been anything quite like it in Doctor Who.

His final trick is to set it in the Blitz, where death could fall from the sky at a moment’s notice. The characters we meet are already living under incredible stress. They’re permanently scared and hungry and under siege from an enemy they can’t protect themselves from. The threat represented by the empty child is not that dissimilar from that brought by the Germans, though far more insidious.

From there on in, Moffat pulls the familiar tricks to bring the scares: you’re surrounded by them, don’t let them touch you, you think you’re safe but you’re not, time’s running out and it’s actually in the room with you. Those are standard narrative driven frights, brought to life by James Hawes’ vivid direction. But they are the symptoms, not the cause of this terror. The cause is those bold, unsettling concepts: a boy in a gas mask, a mask that eats your face, death calling at any time and you with no defence.

***

Moffat ignores the time war. But this first series’ other major obsession, the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper), is front and centre. Earlier in the season, wannabe companion Adam Mitchell had been introduced to throw a gooseberry at the Doctor and Rose’s quietly developing romance. But he proved no contest. In the previous episode, Father’s Day,  Rose wondered, ‘Why does everyone think we’re a couple?’ Well, because you constantly act like one, I suppose.

Moffat introduces a new competitor for Rose’s affections, and this one’s a contender: tall, dark and handsome, plus he’s got his own spaceship. Captain Jack (John Barrowman) will become very familiar to us in future years and his omnisexual appetite will become one of his defining characteristics. But here he’s the Doctor’s rival and Rose feels an immediate attraction to him. It’s clear the Doctor’s going to have to lift his game.

There can only be one winner. But Jack eventually retreats to his spaceship, shamefully realising his responsibility in bringing the Chula nanogenes to Earth. The Doctor solves the problem at hand, by a combination of luck and smarts, and brings everyone back to life. There’s no contest between these two, in the end. ‘I’m on fire!’ he roars in triumph as the story comes to close.

So of course he gets the girl. And they end up dancing joyously around the console room in celebration. For the first time, we see dancing presented as a metaphor for sex, so it’s hard to see that hop as anything but a hugely enjoyable post-match shag. It’s even in the title: The Doctor Dances.  Well, perhaps it would have been a step too far to call it The Doctor Loses his Cherry.

Hey, maybe there’s another potential boxset here: the (ahem) Dancing Stories. It would go The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace… and um, does the Drunk Giraffe count?

LINK TO Planet of the Dead. Both have Captains.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: a howler when during the performance of ‘It had to be you’ when the lyrics ‘with all your faults, I love you still’ becomes ‘when I uphold silence still’. Um, what?

NEXT TIME: It’s time to step out on the balcony and wave a tentacle at Terror of the Zygons.