Tag Archives: Christmas

Secrets, separation and The Husbands of River Song (2015)

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There’s a disquieting undertone to this episode, despite it being a big, bold Chrismassy romcom. Yes, it’s the episode that wraps up the relationship between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, relishing the comic moments) and River Song (Alex Kingston, relishing every bit of it), and it does so in a festive melange of romance and continuity references. Yes, it’s a genuinely funny knockabout caper which celebrates the bond between two fascinating characters. But there’s a nagging concern I’ve been unable to shake. Here it is:

This is the story where River’s true self is revealed to the Doctor. And then he dumps her.

Much was made in this story’s pre-publicity of the comedy value of the Doctor seeing what River does when he’s not around. Due to an unlikely combination of contrivances (River’s convinced the Doctor has a limit of 12 faces, he’s been introduced as ‘the surgeon’), she doesn’t twig who he is, and so she lets the veil drop a little.

We meet a far naughtier character that we’ve seen her be before. We see that she has multiple husbands and multiple wives. That she’s prepare to marry a villain in order to steal from him and kill him. That she borrows the TARDIS when the Doctor’s not looking and stores hooch in a handy roundel. That she’s welcomed onto a spaceship full of mass murderers.

The Doctor looks suitably bemused at all these revelations. But it’s a short exchange with River over dinner that really seems to rock him. She talks about how she got King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) to fall in love with her.

RIVER: It’s the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

And she holds up her TARDIS diary to emphasize the point. Later…

DOCTOR: …you look sad.

RIVER: It’s nearly full.

DOCTOR: So?

RIVER: The man who gave me this was the sort of man who’d know exactly how long a diary you were going to need.

DOCTOR: He sounds awful.

RIVER: I suppose he is. I’ve never really thought about it.

DOCTOR: Not somebody special then?

RIVER: No. But terribly useful every now and then.

Of course, she’s shielding her true feelings, but still, it’s clear that these words sting the Doctor. Later on, in a more honest and revealing moment, River explains that while she loves the Doctor, he doesn’t love her in return.

RIVER: When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!

Penny in the air. She turns to look at the Doctor. Penny drops.

DOCTOR: Hello, sweetie.

It’s a moment of reaffirmation. But the damage appears to be done. This relationship is toast. And River won’t get a say in how it ends.

Consider what happens next. The spaceship, under assault from a meteor storm, dive bombs into a planet. River recognizes the planet immediately as Darillium. We fans know what happens on Darillium. It’s the site of her final meeting with the Doctor before she dies. To escape the crash, the Doctor and River take shelter in the TARDIS. It survives the crash and is planted on Darillium. River is unconscious. The Doctor is awake. And now he has choices.

He could take off again. He and River could go off adventuring anew. No need to stop the fun. Another great escape.

But he doesn’t do that. He makes a conscious decision to engineer the building of a restaurant of Darillium so that he can take River for dinner there, and spend their last night together. He knows this will precipitate the end of their relationship. He does it anyway. It his opinion, it’s time.

Two things bug me about this:

He does it without consulting River. There are two people in this relationship but the Doctor is the one who decides to end it. Why doesn’t he discuss it with her? Presumably because he knows she won’t want to go, but everything has its time and every Christmas is last Christmas or something. Imagine if your partner took an action he/she knew was going to end your relationship, but didn’t discuss it with you. Or did it while you were unconscious! It’s pretty appalling.

He does this after she revealed her true self to him. There have been no end of opportunities for the Doctor to take River to Darillium. He chose this time. What’s different about this time? It’s all as exciting and wisecracking as usual, except this time, River has displayed some habits he doesn’t like. There is air of punishment about this, which is, well, icky. If you don’t like her stealing your TARDIS and murdering despots for jewels, then say something. Don’t just unilaterally decide to end the relationship.

When River works out what’s going on, she naturally protests. She begs for a loophole, for another chance. But the Doctor’s mind is made up. The silver lining? One night on Darillium lasts twenty-four years.

Well that sounds alright in theory, but have these two met each other? Neither of them can stand still for a minute and they’re proposing to spend nearly a quarter of a century in a restaurant? Personally I don’t think it will last twenty-four hours, let alone years.

Perhaps that’s River’s revenge. Perhaps while he’s off to the loo, she steals his TARDIS and pilots it twenty-three-and-three-quarters years into the future. That’ll serve the manipulative old git right!

LINK TO The Three Doctors: “remember that time when there was two of you?” says River. She wasn’t talking about The Three Doctors, but still.

NEXT TIME… As my random who generator’s will, so mote it be! It’s time to summon up The Dæmons.

 

Mark making, rule breaking and A Christmas Carol (2010)

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Christmas specials come in two varieties: the ones which are frothy but insubstantial festive fun, and those which are big event episodes, containing new Doctors, new companions, regenerations et al. On first glance, 2010’s A Christmas Carol looks like it falls into the first category, and true, it does lack a cast change or a Minogue calibre guest star which would single it out as event TV. But actually, I’d say it’s a deceptively important episode which stamps showrunner Steven Moffat’s mark on the series and changes it forever. A big call! Let’s see if I can back it up.

We have to start with the previous story, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. In this story, the Doctor (tweedy Matt Smith) reboots the universe, seemingly reversing the events of Series 5 and returning us to the fictional equivalent of a restore point. It is the most potent embodiment of a phrase that almost becomes Moffat’s mission statement for Doctor Who: time can be re-written. He effectively rewinds the tape to an earlier part of the story and starts again. As the climax to a story or story arc, it’s a trick to which Doctor Who had never before resorted. It’s the ‘Superman reverse time’ trick.

A Christmas Carol goes a step further. It has long been one of Doctor Who‘s immutable rules that the Doctor cannot change history, and by inference, that he can’t change anyone’s personal history. In The Runaway Bride, he says “I couldn’t go back on someone’s personal timeline.” And in Smith and Jones he says “Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden.” Luckily he remembers to add “Except for cheap tricks”, because A Christmas Carol sets out to break all those rules.

It happens to Kazran Sardick, our stand-in Scrooge, played with nuanced gravitas by Michael Gambon. In order to change Sardick’s mind on the subject of saving a crashing spacecraft full of passengers (which includes companions Amy and Rory), the Doctor embarks on an elaborate plan to change his personal history and make him a more compassionate person.

He starts by travelling back in time to when Kazran was a boy (Laurence Belcher). As he does so, Sardick Snr realises his memories are changing, and he turns to the camera, aghast. For the first time in Doctor Who, someone’s time is being rewritten.

(I get to watch each Christmas special with a terrific bunch of friends, all Who heads, but of the casual, new series loving variety, not a die hard like me. I remember watching A Christmas Carol and gasping at that particular moment, recognising what a ground breaking moment it was for the series. My viewing buddies, of course, didn’t bat an eyelid.)

From there on, the Doctor ducks and dives backwards and forwards across the old miser’s timeline. Like all children in Doctor Who, Sardick junior is entranced by Matt Smith’s playful Doctor. He arrives to babysit the kid, and before long they’re both being threatened by a giant flying shark. It’s the start of a great friendship between Time Lord and lonely boy; in each other, they find inquisitive, adventure seeking kindred spirits.

A litany of successive Christmas eve adventures in the TARDIS ensue, with beautiful songstress Abigail (Katherine Jenkins) in tow. She’s been liberated from one of Kazran’s father’s cryogenic pods for people who haven’t paid their bills. The boy loves all this, and loves the Doctor. He even starts wearing a bow tie.

As Sardick grows up to become a young man (Danny Horn), he and Abigail inevitably fall in love. But eventually Abigail fesses up to her new beau that she’s terminally ill and has only days to live. Days she’s been frittering away on Christmas Eve trips in the TARDIS, and now there’s but one left. Sardick grows resentful of the Doctor, who has given him a taste of a happy life, but who has also been gradually ruining it. He dismisses the Doctor with the ultimate insult – he’s grown bored – and disgustedly removes his bow tie.

(And it’s here that we must pause and acknowledge the story’s greatest logical flaw. Abigail looks to be the picture of health. And even if she’s not, why does neither she nor Sardick say anything to the Doctor, who can presumably whisk her away to the future where medical science would surely have found a cure for her? It certainly can’t be for fear of disrupting her timeline. That horse has most definitely bolted.)

So Sardick grows up old and bitter, despite the Doctor’s remedial efforts on his timeline. And as this is a retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we all know what has to happen next: the Doctor will show him a haunting vision of his future. Even Sardick knows it: “Fine. Do it. Show me. I’ll die cold, alone and afraid. Of course I will. We all do. What difference does showing me make?” he snarls. But Moffat pulls off a beautiful conjuring trick, again breaking all the rules. He brings Sardick’s childhood version to the future see what he’ll grow into. A perfect reversal of audience expectations.

And the twists keep coming. Having established that the machine which could save the crashing spaceship will only work for Sardick, the Doctor’s shocked to find he’s changed the misanthrope too much, and the machine no longer recognises him. So Sardick’s forced to thaw out his lady love for the last day of her life, and the scene is set for something of a plotting marvel, in which every one of the story’s elements: Doctor, Sardick, Abigail, singing, shark, screwdriver and crashing spaceship combine to bring the story to a close. That’s hard to do, but Moffat makes it look easy.

But for me, being an old Who stick in the mud, the Doctor’s new found willingness to run roughshod over time, initially spoiled A Christmas Carol for me. It seemed to me to be almost cheating – not playing by the rules. In Series 5 and now this Christmas special, Moffat had set out a bold and revolutionary agenda for the series. You bet time can be rewritten, and now so had Doctor Who.

But since that first viewing, I’ve come to admire much about this episode, not just the intricate plotting I’ve traced through here. But also the quickfire rapidity of the jokes; it’s one of Moffat’s wittiest scripts. The pacy direction of Toby Haynes and the moody cinematography of Stephan Pehrsson. A towering performance by Gambon, who seems to effortlessly wring maximum meaning from every word and gesture. And Matt Smith at the peak of his powers, being both adolescent and ancient simultaneously. All this, and a marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a thing of beauty and a reminder that sometimes to tell a story which is new and compelling, sometimes you need to break all the rules.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: one of my favourite lines gets mangled when the Doctor’s Christmas instruction to a young boy, “stay off the naughty list” becomes the meaningless “stay off the naughtyness”.

LINK TO Planet of Giants. In both the TARDIS doors open mid flight. But luckily this time, the “space pressure” doesn’t cause the Ship to miniaturise. Phew!

NEXT TIME… You unspeakable abomination! We conduct The Sontaran Experiment.

Triumph, facade and Voyage of the Damned (2007)

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Random loves a Christmas special, and so it is that we come to the biggest and boldest of them all. We can recite Voyage of the Damned‘s list of ingredients off by heart: space Titanic, disaster movie, The Robots of Death, Kylie flippin’ Minogue. But watching it now, nearly eight years on, it seems to me to represent something greater than the sum of its eclectic parts. It just might be the peak of new Who‘s powers.

It does after all hold the record for the new series’ highest rating, 13.3m festive viewers. Ratings, though, are slippery things. The Day of the Doctor managed 12.8m, but do we count cinema attendances? And if we could count worldwide audiences, would Voyage still come out in front? I don’t know. But anyway, you could argue that Voyage‘s spectacular ratings represent a peak that Doctor Who has never achieved again. Compared to the ratings for the most recent festive special (Last Christmas, 8.3m viewers), they seem vertiginous.

DWM regularly runs a column about ratings (which itself says something about the sensitivity fans feel about them) which has, in recent years had a theme of “it may look as if ratings are falling but they’re not really”. We’re all time shifting, or watching it on iPlayer or no one’s watching TV anyway, or something. All well researched and well considered arguments. But the fact that an argument has to be mounted in the first place adds to the general feeling that perhaps the show is not attracting the attention it once did. Even if ratings on average are stable, or just a little but down on previous year’s, there’s a sense that its heyday has already passed.

And if Voyage of the Damned is not that heyday, then it must be somewhere around it. It’s an episode which feels triumphant. Big ideas, big effects, big screen inspiration and big guest stars. I mean, it has a replica SS Titanic divebombing Buckingham Palace. It’s fcuk off audacious. Not for nothing does this episode have a grandstanding moment for the Doctor, (“I’m the Doctor, I’m 903 years old…” And so on. David Tennant in top form) where he sets out his credentials as a hero to end all heroes. This is an episode revelling in its own success. It it had We are the Champions on its soundtrack, it wouldn’t be out of place.

Except of course, this isn’t a story about triumphalism. Anything but. The Doctor’s barnstorming speech about saving lives is delivered to a group of mostly doomed people. One of those unlucky souls is Minogue’s Astrid Peth, and although the Doctor launches a last minute attempt to resurrect her via a teleport bracelet, he fails there too. ‘I can do anything!’ he shouts in frustration when he realises this last ditch jiggery-pokery isn’t going to work. And that’s the point, of course. He can’t.

No, this is a story about facade. It’s set on a copy of a famous ship, and the passengers and crew are a load of phoneys. The Captain (Geoffrey Palmer) is on a secret suicide mission. Mr Copper’s (Clive Swift) degree’s a fake. Bannakaffalatta’s (Jimmy Vee) hiding his cyborgness. The Van Hoffs (Debbie Chanzen and Clive Rowe) shouldn’t be there at all; they’re competition winners who rigged the competition. Astrid’s a waitress but really she longs to travel. And the Doctor?  Flashing that psychic paper around, pretending to be a stowaway. Even the Host are killers disguised as beautiful angels. Only bad egg Rickston Slade (Gray O’Brien) and heroic young Midshipman Frame (Russell Tovey) are who they really say they are.

Then there’s Max Capricorn (George Costigan), hidden on board, and another phoney. He’s a villain in a box with a cheesy public persona. Disaster movies are all well and good (and interestingly, this is the latest in a run of random stories stealing liberally from film genres), but they tend to lack villains. In The Poseidon Adventure, for instance, the ship is rolled by no more sinister a force than a tsunami.

Doctor Who needs a villain to act as the story’s impetus, so here the adventure is not a matter of bad luck, it’s an insurance job. Voyage keeps its villain a mystery for most of its running time, and then reveals him in the next-to-final reel. A huge revelation it’s not though, because aside from some talking wallpaper, the audience has never met Max. It’s a twist which makes logical sense (if we avoid the question of why Max has made his HQ on board the very ship he intents to scupper) but not much dramatic impact.

Despite being the linchpin for the story, Max feels like a minor element in this blockbuster. He’s there mainly to give Kylie someone to drive a self-sacrificial fork lift into (and surely there’s no better addition to an actor’s resume). Kylie’s our SACRIFICIAL BLAM! for this post, but self sacrifice is not her’s alone; its another theme played throughout this episode. Both Bannakaffalatta and Foon die to save other people’s lives and Alonso Frame is shot trying to raise the alarm. Death walks the decks of this ship, which is to be expected when you reference the Titanic, I suppose. Still, this is a bloodier Christmas than most, with scores of people killed in the initial collision and a few gruesome murders of survivors (the death of the kitchen staff’s a good example). Jolly festive viewing.

What stops it from being too grim for Christmas is pace. This is a story which moves rapidly from set piece to set piece, with the stakes steadily rising with each iteration. A chase through creaking infrastructure gives way to a stand off on an implausibly placed metal gangway. A showdown with the villain becomes a race to avert a crash becomes a poignant farewell to a love cut short. The story’s structure and its thumping beats might be all too visible, but they keep us watching.

Russell T Davies’ scripts are often a thrill ride concocted from an unlikely mix of elements. But more than any of his other stories, Voyage of the Damned  feels like utter, end of year abandon. All caution has been thrown to the wind. “Let’s make a Christmas action adventure epic, with the Titanic and Kylie Minogue! Because people will totally watch that!” And 13.3m did. It’s big, bold and on BBC1. Here’s a series at the height of its powers, truly thinking “I can do anything.”

LINK to The Moonbase. Yet more mechanical bad guys. And more interestingly, both feature Chanzens (Arnold, the father in The Moonbase and Debbie, his daughter, in Voyage.)

NEXT TIME. These shoes… they fit perfectly! It’s a warm Gallifreyan night and we’re watching the TV movie.

Vastra, Jenny and The Snowmen (2012)

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Doctor Who as written by Steven Moffat is peppered with jokes. Pretty good ones on the whole. And occasionally, some are surprisingly filthy. Take this one, from A Good Man Goes to War featuring Silurian detective Vastra (Neve McIntosh) and warrior maid Jenny Flint (Catrin Stewart).

VASTRA: Mammals. They all look alike.

JENNY: Oh, thank you.

(One of two tied up prisoners is looking to unlock the door)

VASTRA: Was I being insensitive again, dear? I don’t know why you put up with me.

(And she whips out her enormous tongue and lashes the prisoner’s neck. Cue knowing glances between Vastra and Jenny).

It’s the moment we find out that Vastra and Jenny are more than just friends. And probably Doctor Who’s most blatant joke about female orgasm (though oddly enough, there’s one in our next random story too. Now that’s a teaser!). Two women doing it, and one’s a lizard. As some wag on Twitter recently said, it’s great that Doctor Who brings gay bestiality to family television.

But Vastra and Jenny have gone on to make several return appearances and that lifts them above the status of a throwaway gag about lesbianism. They are the first Doctor Who regulars who are a same sex couple and by their second appearance in The Snowmen, they are married, which is presented as a signal of legitimacy. When Dr Simeon (a glowering Richard E Grant), remarks on their suspiciously intimate companionship, Vastra retorts “I resent your implication of impropriety”. They are the real deal. And unapologetic about it.

They make a perfectly charming couple: Jenny the spunky adventure seeker, Vastra the flirty sleuth. They are clearly devoted to each other, despite Vastra’s occasional sideways glances. The only worrying aspect of it, as noted by Jenny herself in Deep Breath, is despite being in a marriage of equals, she is still the maid to Vastra’s lady of the house (it is difficult to imagine the same situation applying to Amy and Rory and being acceptable to modern viewers). Nonetheless, Doctor Who, in presenting them as a same sex couple as nuanced and as legitimate as any other, is doing what it has often done over the years, and celebrating difference.

It doesn’t hurt that there’s a sci-fi twist to this relationship. It is easier for Doctor Who to tell their story because Vastra is a “lizard woman from the dawn of time”. This makes it more palatable, hides the sex behind a sci-fi veil. Again, it is Doctor Who’s long held practice. Last random’s The Mutants told the story of racial intolerance from the safety of a space station in the future. Real life issues, hidden in plain sight. Would the series be able to show a married human gay couple, male or female, for more than a fleeting glance? I think that Vastra’s very nature shows that actually, the series is not there yet.

But still, it has come a long way. If Vastra and Jenny have a Who ancestor, it’s Jack Harkness, played by John Barrowman. Jack is famously omnisexual, though in Doctor Who this extended only to some ribald comments, and flirty exchanges with members of both sexes and the occasional alien.

By the time he gets to Torchwood though, Jack is more gay than bisexual. He enters into an intense relationship with colleague Ianto Jones, which never makes its way into Doctor Who although both appear in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Jack might be every-kind-of-sexual in Doctor Who, but he’s never queer in the way that Vastra and Jenny are. But his presence, both in Doctor Who and in Torchwood at least shows that a non-straight character can play a prominent role. I don’t think you could jump straight to the series’ first gay marriage without a trail blazing character like Jack.

Since The Snowmen, we’ve seen Vastra and Jenny (do they have a Brangelina style name conflation? Jenstra? Vasny?) in The Crimson Horror and The Name of the Doctor, and their presence was barely noted by the not-we press. But in Deep Breath we saw them kiss, and that caught some attention. Even then it was under the narrative excuse of sharing oxygen reserves, but chicks kissing is usually enough to get you in the papers. Of course the actual impact of the smooch was over inflated by the media. Apparently six viewers complained, which is negligible.

Of more interest is that the episode was edited for some international territories, the first of two interesting editing decisions in Series 8, the second being the decapitation in Robot of Sherwood. I digress, but leaving the kiss on the cutting room floor shows how international tastes influence the show. Not that editing for international broadcast is new – plenty of classic series stories were snipped for Australian broadcast for instance – but they were always because of violence, not moral concern, if we might generously (if not sarcastically) call it that.

What it shows is that queerness still has only a tenuous place in Doctor Who. It’s highly codified; that lesbian’s not a lesbian, she’s a Silurian. That kiss isn’t a kiss, it’s an oxygen transfer. He’s not gay, he’s omnisexual. It can be excised too; you can watch a version of Deep Breath with or without its girl on lizard kiss. But despite this, we can see the series taking steps to address queer culture. We are surely not that far away from an openly gay companion… Perhaps even a Doctor who fancies blokes?

And I seem to have reached the end of this post without mentioning Vajenny’s (Oh no. Just no.) role in the episode itself. Hmm, how about this… How does cold blooded Vastra cope with the icy winters of London? I’ll leave you with that to ponder.

LINK to The Mutants. I don’t have much, but each does have a spaceship hovering above the action on the planet’s surface.

NEXT TIME… I was going to snog him! We conduct The Lazarus Experiment.

Celebrity, casting and The Runaway Bride (2006)

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8 July 2006. The broadcast date for Doomsday in the UK. The episode reaches its devastating conclusion, and the Doctor is alone, crying in the TARDIS. But there’s a surprise in store. Suddenly, a bride is in the console room. Then she turns around, and blimey! It’s TV comedy star Catherine Tate! How very dare you!

Shortly after that (or even before it, as international time zones dictate), the episode is bit torrented around the internet and is being enjoyed by fans all around the world. If you were in Australia, the moment went more like this: The episode reaches its devastating conclusion, and the Doctor is alone, crying in the TARDIS. But there’s a surprise in store. Suddenly, a bride is in the console room. Then she turns around, and um… who is that woman?

The Catherine Tate Show was yet to air in Australia by Christmas 2006. Probably in the US, Canada, New Zealand and all sorts of other Who sales territories, I expect. The point is the casting of a well known performer or a celebrity with a high profile in the UK – stunt casting, as it’s called – doesn’t necessarily have the same impact when viewed around the world.

So let’s say you’re an Australian fan, and you’ve just watched Doomsday. Confused (rather than thrilled) by the surprise ending, you read the credits and discover that the Bride is played by Catherine Tate. Next stop Google: who is Catherine Tate? Why is she suddenly on my favourite show? And why does Doctor Who expect me to know who she is?

And so you swot up on Catherine Tate. Oh, she’s a comedian. Oh, her show’s popular in the UK. OK, she’s stunt casting. Great. Now I’m up to speed.

This is familiar territory to Australian fans (and I suspect to all non-UK resident fans). It went on during the classic series: your Beryl Reids, your Ken Dodds, your Faith Browns. All celebrities whose import was lost on us. Hale and Pace we knew as their show had been shown in Oz. Nicholas Parsons had at least been a punchline on The Goodies.

But the most potent pre-Tate example from the classic years is Bonnie Langford, cast as companion Mel in 1986. Her varied career, which included a lot of song and dance, caused her Who performance to be greatly prejudged. Much of this critical commentary came from the UK, and was reported in the fan press in Australia. Langford was not well known in Australia then (or now, I suspect), and so much of the outcry was hard to contextualise for Australian fans. I found myself trying to imagine an Australian equivalent, and the closest I came to was Rhonda Burchmore, the vivacious, red headed song and dance performer.

(Rhonda Burchmore as a companion. How does that sit, Aussie readers? I think we’re getting close to experiencing the original Melshock.)

The upside of this is that non-UK fans were able to view Langford’s performance without the associated baggage complained of by British Who-heads. (I still have no idea what a ‘Violet Elizabeth Bott’ is). There was no instant reaction of seeing Langford’s celebrity image jump out of a Doctor Who story at you. We viewed Mel in a way UK fans could not.

Sometimes it works in reverse. Langford’s co-star in The Trial of a Time Lord  was Michael Craig, in the early 1990s well known in Australia as a crusty old doctor in medico drama GP. To this day, he looks very out of place in that Vervoid story to me. I expect him to be handing out prescriptions and bitching about patients.

Years later, The Christmas Invasion featured Adam Garcia, latter day dance show judge, but then not widely known in the UK. But in Australia, he’s forever that guy from ‘blokes take up tapdancing’ movie Bootmen. So in every second scene it’s ‘Look! Adam Garcia’s on Doctor Who!’ So it is possible for international viewers to be distracted by celebrity casting. And Peter O’Brien, star of bloody everything on Aussie TV, is a weirdly familiar face in the otherwise gripping The Waters of Mars.

The biggest example though, shared by UK fans, Australian fans and fans all over the world, was Kylie Minogue, guest companion for 2007’s Voyage of the Damned. I found myself watching that episode actively trying to put her celebrity aside. ‘Concentrate on her performance! I can’t, it’s Kylie!’ Does that casting work? Yes, in a sense that it was watched by about a gazillion people. Did she effectively transcend her celebrity identity though? Does it even matter?

New Who started of course by casting a celebrity in Billie Piper (not hugely well known in Australia, but there were more than a few copies of Honey to the B on cassingle lurking in Aussie homes), a move which proved shrewd in many ways, the most important being that she gave a great performance. But like Kylie, she also attracted a fan base and generated media attention.

And it struck an early note for the new series that casting actors with a profile can work. These days it’s the norm; we expect big name stars in the show. Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon and John Hurt fall into the ‘respected thesps’ category. David Walliams, James Corden and Frank Skinner are (like Tate) the ‘comedian/actor’ type. Richard Dawkins, Patrick Moore and McFly are the ‘big enough names to exist in both Doctor Who and the real world’ type (but to be fair these are more jokey cameos than legit performances).

Catherine Tate as it turns out is unique; the only stunt casting to transfer to a series regular.(Langford is also stunt casting, but was always intended to be a regular) And a hugely successful one; Doctor Who Magazine‘s first 50 years poll showed Donna to be readers’ favourite companion after perennial favourite Sarah Jane Smith. Proof, if any is needed, that the right person in the right role works regardless of their previous track record. We can expect more of this to come.

We eventually got to see The Catherine Tate Show in Australia. For me, watching it was experiencing stunt casting in reverse; it was ‘that woman from Doctor Who‘s sketch show’. And of course it was excellent. The first episode I caught included a running series of sketches about the persecution of redheads. Tate played some redhead political prisoner. Finally one day her struggles pay off and she’s released from prison. She hears that a biopic of her is in production. ‘Who’ll be playing me?’ she asks. ‘Bonnie Langford’, the answer comes back, and Tate walks proudly off. How appropriate! The original redhead stunt casting companion.

LINK to The Macra Terror. Both have creepy crawly monsters; crabs and spiders respectively.

NEXT TIME… You’re not from Social Services, are you? We’ve got a bad case of the Night Terrors.

Regeneration, resolution and The Time of the Doctor (2013)

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It starts with a mysterious signal emanating from an insignificant planet. The signal attracts an armada of alien spaceships piloted by a Who‘s what of monsters. But this isn’t The Pandorica Opens.

It’s the 2013 Christmas special (my random Who generator loves these; its chosen 3 out of 9 of the buggers) and Matt Smith’s farewell story. In the DWM preview for this story, showrunner Steven Moffat said of it: “It’s the greatest single performance ever given by anyone who has ever played the Doctor”. And as it happens, I spent my last post ruminating on when each Doctor gave their best performance. So was Moffat spouting promotional puffery or was he on the money?

Crafting a performance takes time. And that’s the one luxury Doctor Who has never afforded its actors. As many of the show’s actors have relayed in interviews, on old Who the low budget meant time was precious. So although there were days allocated for rehearsal, once on location it was get the scenes in the can and move on. Studio recording was even more brutal; get it done, effects and all by 10pm or the lights go out.

And on new Who, although there’s a bigger budget, the sheer amount of material to shoot means time is still of the essence. Both Smith and David Tennant have spoken about the daunting workload on the show; how during production it’s basically shoot all day, go home to learn lines and repeat for nine months of the year. It’s a crushing schedule; on The Name of the Doctor there were 15 days between the first draft script and the start of the shoot. What I’m saying is, be it old Who or new, it’s amazing we got/get anything half watchable, let alone the many fine performances it does offer.

With that in mind, let’s look at the acting challenges facing Smith in his final episode. He’s in nearly every scene. He’s being the Doctor at three different ages, under two heavy make ups (but this isn’t The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords). He has to create a relationship with an inanimate cyberhead (hmm, should it have been K9’s head?). He has to be seductive with Tasha Lem, fatherly with Barnable and man up with the monsters. And with Clara he’s performing in a screwball comedy duo, making us care about their relationship enough that it breaks our heart to see them parted at story’s end. And much of the scenery’s not actually there, because nearly everything’s on green screen. And on top of it all, this job which has consumed his life for the last four years is coming to an end, so emotions are high.

Smith does a terrific job at all this and more. But somehow this story doesn’t quite feel like the tour de force that Tennant had in Human Nature. Last entry, I talked about how a good story that pushes the Doctor in new directions helps makes a standout performance. And The Time of the Doctor is that, but it’s also the culmination of 4 years of hint dropping and mystery making by Moffat. So often the story seems to stop to pick up some loose end or other, be it ‘who blew up the TARDIS’ or ‘what was behind that door in The God Complex‘ or ‘has the Doctor run out of regenerations’? (Personally I’m still waiting to find out why the duck pond in The Eleventh Hour  had no ducks. We need to know.) Smith doesn’t get as clear a run at it as Tennant did with the uncluttered Human Nature.

For me, Smith’s best performance is to be found elsewhere. And I haven’t quite decided where it is. But I think it’s somewhere around the beginning of his second season. It’s here where there seems to be a definitive confidence in his characterization; an solidifying of that peculiar mix of gentle otherworldliness and childlike delight. Perhaps it’s when he’s playing at Christmas gift bringer in A Christmas Carol. Or perhaps its when he’s trying to piece together what’s happening to his life and his friends inThe Impossible Astronaut. Or perhaps – and this is where I’m leaning at the moment – it’s to be found in the highs and lows of meeting his own TARDIS in The Doctor’s Wife.

Still, there’s much of interest going on in The Time of the Doctor. Clara gets tricked into returning to Earth as a way of ensuring her safety (but this isn’t The Parting of the Ways). Then she piggy backs on the outer hull of the TARDIS through the vortex to rejoin the story (but this isn’t Utopia). The stop/start nature of her story might seem a little offputting, but it’s an elegant device for showing the passage of long periods of time. In a way, it’s a pity we (the audience) don’t stick with her throughout, distancing us from the Doctor’s story and making his increasing age and infirmity a more immediate shock.

But we need to see what’s happening on Trenzalore in the gaps, because the Doctor’s defence of the town of Christmas is the heart of the story; to prevent another Time War the restless wanderer will settle down and commit to a cause. And because this takes hundreds of years (in which time the town barely changes, but shush now), we see the youngest ever Doctor become the oldest. Surely this is Moffat both playing to Smith’s strengths (he has often claimed that Smith is best at portraying the Doctor’s great age) but also indulging in some delicious irony;  how else should the youngest Doctor die but through old age?

This leads to the episode’s neatest trick – the regeneration. It’s not so much that it delivers the Doctor a new lifecycle, though that does feel like a cumbersome burden gratefully abandoned. It’s that the regeneration is the resolution of the story, the first time that’s happened. It’s the way of solving the problem. As it carves through those Dalek ships, it brings the siege of Trenzalore to an end. Every other time the Doctor’s regenerated, that’s been the consequence of the Doctor’s role in the story – the price he’s paid for winning through. Here regeneration is the sweet dessert at the end of the meal, not the unwanted bill.

It ends with the young, handsome and funny Doctor restored pre-change, but this isn’t The End of Time. There’s no drawn out valedictory tour of past companions, just a short scene where the differences between Doctor and actor become hard to discern. “I will not forget one line of this”, says the Doctor, but that word ‘line’ seems to deliberately reference the lines which Matt Smith has spoken in the role. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me”; again it could be Matt speaking, not the Doctor. And thinking back, whether he was being mobbed by adoring children, or walking past walls plastered with fan’s artwork or even revealing his newly shaven head, this story has deliberately blurred the lines between actor and Doctor. And thus it acknowledges fictionally what the viewers already know in fact; it’s goodbye to both.

But then a whiplash crick of the neck, and the new man arrives. After an hour rich in sentiment, the show rolls on, with its trademark lack of sentimentality.

LINK to Human Nature/The Family of Blood: Both involve making the lead actor up to be aged greatly. (And these make up jobs are always brilliant, but, despite the best of efforts, are never 100% convincing are they? It’s something about the eyes which seem unageable; islands of youth in an ocean of wrinkly skin.)

NEXT TIME: Point the dog against the rock! We get big, green and rude with The Creature from the Pit.

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.