Tag Archives: Christmas

Up, away and The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016)


Please adopt your best movie trailer voice for the purposes of this post. (Internal or external voice, up to you.)

In a world where Christmas specials have gone on so long we can no longer think of any more Christmas themed plotlines…

I like to think it happened like this: showrunner Steven Moffat, punchdrunk from making Sherlock, scrabbling around for a suitable Christmasy idea for Doctor Who’s 12th festive special, finally sighed and said “how about Superman? They show Superman movies at Christmas, don’t they? Sometimes, at least? It’s either that or we go with alien elves and sentient egg nog. Don’t make me do it, you know I will!”

Although I’ve argued that modern Who sometimes imbues the Doctor with superpowers, “superhero movie” is generally a genre the show has to avoid. Superheroes have only existed in the Doctor Who universe as fictional characters and integrating them into a Doctor Who story would have meant some oddball narrative deviation, such as a visit The Mind Robber’s Land of Fiction. In fact, that’s exactly what did happen when the second Doctor and Zoe were menaced by the mighty Karkus (as if you could forget).

But genre blending never frightened Moffat, and so he comes up with a way to tell a superhero story, as well as offering a fondly satirical pastiche of superhero stories, while still making it a Doctor Who story. If he neglects to cover this one in tinsel and Christmas baubles, then at least it’s still merry and bright.

In a time where superhero movies and Doctor Who collide…

To create this mishmash of formats, Moffat wisely decides to make the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) the mad professor who unintentionally creates a superhero, rather than making him the stand-in Superman. (The alternative would be for the Doctor to temporarily gain some superhero powers, but I don’t think anyone would have wanted to see the waspish twelfth Doctor donning a spandex body suit. Nor Matt Lucas’s Nardole as SuperDoc’s trusty sidekick. Although the image of that pairing does seem to suggest a duo of classic Little Britain characters we never got to see.)

As it turns out, it’s as simple as the Doctor giving young Grant (Logan Hoffman) a magic sci-fi pill which turns his comic book fuelled fantasies into reality. And hey presto, the Doctor has dragged a superhero out of the realm of fiction. And suddenly, we’re in a world where the Doctor can meet, work and argue with Superman (or at least his copyright free equivalent) while still being hyper aware of the stereotypes of the genre: secret identities which are both obvious but unnoticed, torturous romances between hero and human, and earnest, ethical instruction (“Because fire prevention is the responsibility of every citizen, so get a smoke detector!”).

It’s as neat a narrative conceit as Moffat ever constructed. And given his form in that field, that’s really something.

One man and his comedy sidekick must save New York City…

Every so often, the Doctor grows tired of travelling the universe with a succession of beautiful women and shacks up with a bloke for an episode or two. In this case, it’s aide-de-camp (emphasis on the “camp”) Nardole, unfeasibly bought back to life after being decapitated and embedded in a big red robot.

Nardole will go on to play an important role in Series 10 as the secondary companion and the Doctor’s nagger in chief. Here, though, he has no real plot function, other than to puncture the Doctor’s pomposity every so often. But he’s not entirely out of place in this tale of superheroes and the people around them. After all, Batman had a butler so why not the Doctor? Nardole is useful for running errands, asking questions, being exasperated and cracking the odd gag, but as companions go, surely the Doctor is overlooking someone.

A hero will rise…

Honestly, Doctor, if you’re looking for a companion to keep you company while you mooch around after the loss of River, boy next door Grant (Justin Chatwin) not only has the pleasantly dorky look of the permanent underdog, but he also has freaking super powers! Which could be very useful against the Daleks, the Mandrells and other top tier villains. Funny how the option to dump Nardole like a hot dumpling and take the phenomenally more useful Grant along for a ride never crosses his mind.

Perhaps he thinks it’s too cruel to break up the burgeoning romance between Grant and Lucy (Charity Wakefield). In which case, maybe he should cut along and get another magic red pill for Nardole. And we’re back to Super Nardole! He’d cut quite the figure in skin tight body armour and a big G on his chest.

With the woman he loves…

In an unusual move for Doctor Who, this story’s a romantic comedy. Quite a lot of it’s time is spent trying to get Lucy and Grant together.

In one sense, it’s a distraction from the Doctor’s fight against the agents of Harmony Shoal, because it’s a romance between two side characters. But it’s much more central the episode than that. It plays on all the old gags about Superman and Lois Lane, particularly her inability to recognise him out of his superhero duds. The Doctor almost derails this plotline mid-episode when he threatens to spill the beans to Lucy. “There are some situations which are just too stupid to be allowed to continue,” he sighs and he’s right of course, but that would totally spoil the fun. And as Moffat could write romantic comedy in his sleep, we see here what a superhero popcorn movie written by him might turn out like.

Come to that, where’s the spin off series for Lucy and Grant? You could call it The Ghost and Mrs Lombard (there’s a TV reference for the old timers among you). Wakefield and Chatwin make a charismatic pairing. I’d totally watch them tearing around New York (or its ersatz Bulgarian equivalent) finding a balance between crime fighting and child care. Quick, someone make it before Big Finish jumps on it.

And things will never be the same again.

It all gets wrapped up very neatly at the end, but one thing’s left hanging. The hinge heads of Harmony Shoal aren’t entirely defeated. One of them gets to turn meaningfully to camera, Valeyard style, at the end of the episode. Pure cheese, but still, an indication that a rematch was planned, but never delivered. And then there’s the name of the thing (to borrow a line from The Leisure Hive) – “Harmony Shoal” sounds a little too reminiscent of “Song, River” to be coincidental. Surely this is a tale unfinished.

Anyway. We never got that sequel and now the series has moved significantly on from the genre mangling, wisecracking world of Steven Moffat. But it’s just as well – we know from Superman II, Batman Returns and all the rest that they’re rarely as good as the original.  Best to leave Mysterio alone. As one off, slightly festive, comic book hero, rom coms go, it’s pretty super.

LINK TO Arachnids in the UK: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: The Quest is the Quest! We take a detailed look at Tom Baker’s Underwear. Sorry, I mean, Underworld.

Hawks, doves and The Christmas Invasion (2005)


The ghost of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart hangs around the final scenes of The Christmas Invasion. Back in 1970’s Spearhead from Space, he mentioned how humans had been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. “We’ve drawn attention to ourselves,” he said ominously, moustache twitching with deep portent.

David Tennant’s skinny, sassy Doctor has just seen off the slave trading Sycorax in the space of about 10 minutes, but still he’s cautious. He all but quotes his old friend. Though he’s got quite the gob, so he uses far more words to say it: “And the human race is drawing attention to itself. Every day you’re sending out probes and messages and signals. This planet’s so noisy. You’re getting noticed more and more.”

His words spook Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton). It’s been a bad day at the office. She’s just been through an alien invasion she was powerless to stop, she’s seen two men die in front of her and had the fate of half the world rest on her ability to negotiate her way out of an impossible situation.  She’s been in charge when the Doctor didn’t show up, and it’s terrified her.

So she takes a decision to blow up the alien threat rather than let them escape. In doing so, she’s channeling he Brigadier. He took the same pragmatic choice when he blew up the Silurians, again in 1970, in a desperate attempt to end a story which had already gone on for seven episodes. The difference then was we never got to see the Doctor confront his military friend about his act of murder, masquerading as defence.

Here, the Doctor forces Harriet to justify her choice. This she does, with hawkish pragmatism. “You said yourself, Doctor, they’d go back to the stars and tell others about the Earth. I’m sorry, Doctor, but you’re not here all the time… They died right in front of me while you were sleeping. In which case we have to defend ourselves.” The Doctor is, of course, disgusted. “But that’s murder,” he said in 1970 and so he repeats, “that was murder” in 2005. Apart from that, he doesn’t bother to try to counter her arguments. He just starts tossing around threats.

More of that later. But first, it’s interesting that writer Russell T Davies is specifically referencing those two stories from 1970 (three, if we note that trouble with aliens abducting a British space craft was core to The Ambassadors of Death). He even goes to the extent of quoting them, almost word for word. He’s reminding us of the time when the Doctor had an uncomfortable relationship with his Earthbound allies. And also of a time when a new Doctor made a barnstorming entrance, signalling a major shift in the tone and focus of the series. David Tennant’s Doctor signals as significant a progression for the series as Pertwee, colour and exile to Earth did.

Tennant’s Doctor is different to Pertwee’s though, in that he’s unafraid to meter out punishment if you cross him. When the Sycorax leader goes back on his word to leave Earth, and instead redoubles his attack, the Doctor has no hesitation in triggering the trap door which sends the bad guy plummeting to the ground. “No second chances,” he says grimly. That goes for Harriet too.

As his argument with her escalates, he warns her of the consequences of messing with him. And when she shows no remorse, he decides to bring down her government by whispering six words in the ear of right hand man, Alex (Adam Garcia, formerly a red hot tap dancer back in Australia. Mrs Spandrell was very keen on him.) It’s a handy trick. I wish he would fall to Earth now and perform that same feat in the USA.

Anyway, the point is that this Doctor is not a man to cross.In some ways, that rift with Harriet marks the tenth Doctor out as political; he’s against pre-emptive military action. Or maybe it’s simpler than that – he just against the sneaky tactics of clobbering someone from behind.

Either way, he’s unafraid to lose friends when he thinks they’ve done the wrong thing. Later he watches Harriet on TV, flustered by questions about her health, engulfed in the PR storm he’s just conjured up with a six word magic spell. He stands there in his new glasses and paper Christmas hat and watches his former friend’s world collapse around her, and he’s unmoved.

This will of steel is something he has in common with his predecessor, who watched dispassionately as Cassandra burst apart and who dumped failed companion Adam back to Earth with window in his forehead. But then unlike the ninth Doctor, he does domestic. He has Christmas dinner with Jackie (Camille Coduri) and Mickey (Noel Clarke), something the last him flatly refused to do. Indeed his whole attitude to Jackie and Mickey has softened. He physically embraces them – again something he previously wouldn’t have had a bar of. So although he’s just as uncompromising as Dr 9, he’s a far more accessible and relaxed with his human buddies.

There’s one last moment that underlines Doctor Tennant’s refusal to let his human compadres take the easy way out. At the story’s end, when he goes to grab Rose’s hand to run off together for further adventures, she shies away a little because it means holding the hand he recently grew back. “That hand still gives me the creeps,” she says. But he doesn’t offer her the other one. He insists she takes the one that freaks her out. It’s a tiny little moment, but it just reinforces that this Doctor doesn’t let you off easy.

One last thing to note. This is the story which starts to develop Mickey and Jackie as characters, beyond being handbrakes on Rose’s TARDIS adventuring. Mickey gets his first heroic moment when he outmanoeuvres the robot Santas and Jackie plays both caring matriarch and comic relief (I particularly love her reminding Mickey to note down how much internet he uses, even though only moments ago they were nearly killed by a rampaging Christmas tree). They are, at last, the Doctor’s allies, Earth-bound but ready to help out when needed. Pertwee had his UNIT family. Tennant has the Tyler family. The Brigadier would be pleased.

LINK TO The Power of Kroll: both were originally broadcast on/around Christmas time.

NEXT TIME… The walls need sponging and there’s a sinister puddle. We’ll take care of it and The Caretaker too.


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


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.


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)


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)


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)


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)

runaway bride

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.