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Audience, avatars and Rose (2005)

rose

Doctor Who was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the BBC bigwigs in 1989 and countersigned by the 1996 TV Movie. It was unloved by audiences and TV commissioners alike. It was seen as cheap, hokey nonsense whose time had well and truly past. Doctor Who was as dead as a door-nail.

But then –  2003, when Russell T Davies used its revival as a bargaining chip to come over to the BBC. That he and a few key allies within the BBC like Lorraine Heggesey and Jane Tranter conjured it into existence at a time when it was still seen as a laughable remnant of TV past, was an enormous achievement. But there was a bigger mountain still to climb.

The broadcaster might have ordered 13 episodes for an initial season, but had the ratings not been there – if an audience could not be found and sustained further than the first few episodes – the show would likely be rapidly moved to a late night throwaway slot and its death sentence reapplied. Davies’ career would have suffered a severe setback. And Doctor Who would be the show with two failed reboots, making it TV poison. The stakes were never higher.

So with episode 1 of this new series, Russell T Davies had to achieve one thing only: he had to make a modern audience fall in love with Doctor Who in 45 minutes. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that he pulled this off brilliantly. But he also did something else in that first episode, something even cleverer and more cunning.

He taught a whole new audience how to watch Doctor Who.

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His first step: reassurance. This episode doesn’t start like the TV Movie, in deep space, with planets and shadowy aliens and so on. It starts with a swan dive from Earth into space, down into an ordinary council flat. In a music clip montage, we meet Rose (Billie Piper) and she goes about the familiar routines of her life: getting ready for work, catching the bus, lunch with her boyfriend, folding up clothes.

The importance of this sequence is that it disarms. It captures viewers who would turn off at the first sight of a laser beam or a spaceship. It sends a powerful signal that this is a series for people who go to work, catch buses and do jobs they don’t particularly love. The lack of dialogue and the pacey cutting all help. Stick with us, this opening sequence says. It’s going to be OK.

Rose is our central character and casting Billie Piper was crucial to both selling the character and the show itself. Piper manages to look like the girl next door while also being charismatic enough to signal that she’s much more than that. Positioning this as her story – making the female sidekick (always a secondary presence in the classic series) the focus of the first episode is a huge signal of intent.

Not only is this a story set in the real world, the world which viewers live in, one of our own is the hero. One of our own is someone important enough to be the centre of this story and to give her name to the story. The old series, even in its later years, never gave us a story called Ace. Or even Mel (can you imagine?). That Rose is fundamentally about Rose is a quiet but fundamental shift.

Next step: the hook. Post our music clip opening, there’s the sequence with the Autons in the basement of the building. It’s textbook Doctor Who: monsters made out of everyday objects, creepy simulacra of human beings, someone trapped within a darkened room and the creeping threat of death at the hand of something bizarre but terrifying. This will be familiar to those who remember the classic show, and in its capacity to intrigue and excite, it crosses televisual generations. Davies shrewdly doesn’t lead with this. In a narrative sleight of hand, he lulls his audience into a sense of comfort with science fiction with the “day in the life of Rose” sequence and then grabs them with some ol’ fashioned thrills. He tops off this sequence, by introducing us to the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston).

Davies keeps the Doctor at arm’s length. He’s an enigma who Rose has to decode in increments. She meets him in a series of events, getting deeper each time. This is what Davies wants his audience to do. He wants them to seek him out, in the same way Rose does. He wants to them to go on the internet to find out about him, just as Rose does. (And didn’t the BBC had several dummy websites from the show’s fictional world set up for them to discover?) By the time we get to the pivotal “turn of the earth” speech, we’re hooked. This drip feed of information avoids the TV Movie’s info dump approach, but it also positions the Doctor as a man you have to spend time with to understand. He’s a man of secrets and you’re going to have to hang around all season to find them all out. But if Rose is willing to, then so are we.

Having made Rose and us fans, Davies warns viewers about capital F, Levine level super fans. Clive (Mark Benton) is one such fan, who Rose meets on the internet. Clive’s way of following the Doctor is not the right way. He lives in a shed. He’s a bit obsessed. A short meeting with him is enough to convince Rose to keep her distance. Clive’s inclusion here is crucial to normalise the process of watching Doctor Who for new audience members. When Rose walks away from Clive, repelled but with her curiosity about the Doctor maintained, she’s showing that you don’t have to be an anorak to watch this show.

And as Rose continues to decipher the Doctor, to explore the TARDIS, and to help him defeat a big tub of angry goo, Davies is stating what viewers can expect from the show. Expect Rose to be an active participant in the story, he’s saying. Expect her to battle aliens. But also expect her to have a family, have a home base and be grounded in the real world.

Then in the very last frame, she runs into the TARDIS, completely buying into future adventures. Again, this is what Davies wants the audience to do. Throughout this whole episode, he’s used Rose as an avatar for the viewer. It’s almost like neural linguistic programming or subliminal messaging – making Rose the stand-in for an audience learning about Doctor Who. It’s what makes Rose such a crafty, disarming and ingenious piece of work. It’s a trick which got – and kept – so many of us watching.

And this weekend, the show will attempt the same trick again. A brand new Doctor, but for the first time, a woman. Reassurance, intrigue, old-fashioned thrills and enough mystery to keep us hooked for a season worth of adventures. My prediction? There’ll be plenty of Rose in The Woman Who Fell to Earth. A trick that good is worth pulling again and again.

LINK TO Kill the MoonTension between the Doctor and his companion’s boyfriend.

NEXT TIME… Are you secretly a badass? We’ll find out in Extremis, baby doll.

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Celebrity, history and The Unquiet Dead (2005)

unquiet

Remember the celebrity historical? It used to be a thing. A real, live, it-can-be-our-second/third/fourth-episode kinda thing. Through it we met all sorts of famous dead people – Queen Victoria, Madame du Pompadour, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. And it starts here, with a tale of ghosts and walking cadavers with Charles Dickens in ye olde Cardiff.

It was a shrewd move by showrunner Russell T Davies to include this episode in the revamped series’ first year. Those first three episodes of his version of the show are set in the present, the future and the past respectively; a shorthand statement of what the show’s about. A historical adventure tells a new audience that this series isn’t going to be all spaceships and laser beams every week. But the inclusion of a famous historical figure, plus some alien bad guys, gives that same audience a way into these old world adventures without them feeling like they’re being subjected to some snoozy old history lesson.

It also gives the production personnel something on which they can show off their skills: period drama. Former script editor Andrew Cartmel first vocalised what had been staring viewers in the face for years – that the BBC could pull off a more convincing historical drama than a science fiction epic. Despite new Who‘s increased budget, there’s still some truth in this, plus time and money saved in recreating familiar historical sets and costumes rather than dreaming them up anew. Not to mention that a well known star playing a well known historical figure makes for great publicity.

Writer Mark Gatiss sets the template for the celebrity historical in this macabre episode. He chooses a well known historical figure, one with an inkling for the the supernatural. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) might be a daunting figure for viewers (me included) who have never finished any of his mighty tomes (I know, I know! I’ll get to them! Right after The Doctor Who Cookbook) but he proves a prudent choice, with the Doctor (an energized Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (an energetic Billie Piper) turning up just at a point of personal existential crisis. He teams up with the our heroes, becoming a de factor companion and along the way, his life is changed for the better by the experience. It’s a pattern which holds more or less up until and including Vincent and the Doctor.

Then things change. With The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, where Richard Nixon, who under the old template for celebrity historicals might have been expected to be the episode’s focus, but now becomes just a notable supporting character. In their respective episodes, Queens Nefertiti of Egypt and Elizabeth I of England are similarly exotic side dishes, not the main meal. By the time we get to Peter Capaldi’s era, the celebrity historical has been dropped altogether. Clara makes do with sly references to her flirty adventures with Jane Austen. That name dropping’s enough; we don’t need to see the Doctor meet another historical British writer. We’ve been there done that.

(Thank Rassilon. I can’t stand Austen. A Doctor Who encounter with her sounds awful. It’d be called Time and Temerity, or Space and Speciousness or something. Clara would be proposed to by some alien dressed up in period costume, via a series of letters delivered by horse and cart and everything would take weeks. Yawn. Unless it was a Blackadder inspired version where Jane Austen turns out to be “a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush”. Yes, I’d watch that.)

So now the celebrity historical, once a mainstay of any Doctor Who season is out of vogue. No doubt famous people from history will continue to turn up, but more episodes showcasing any given figure of history seems unlikely. It’s a shame, because having our heroes rub shoulders with someone we know from history is one of those uniquely Doctor Who ideas. And it’s been with the show since its earliest years, where we met Marco Polo, Nero, Richard I and Doc Holliday. If you squint, it even stays true to the show’s original remit to be slightly educational. The Unquiet Dead, for instance, manages to trickle out an abbreviated biography of Dickens and his work.

Still, it’s fun to fill in future fantasy seasons with celebrity historicals which still one day might come to pass. Oscar Wilde’s episode would riff on The Picture of Dorian Gray.  That other OW, Orson Wells already has one in Big Finish’s universe – by Mark Gatiss, no less – which could be adapted. Sylvester McCoy’s suggestion of the Doctor meeting Richard III could finally come to fruition. What about JFK, given his and the show’s association with November 1963? Galileo? Da Vinci? The Beatles? Surely we can’t let Timelash be the definitive Doctor Who appearance by HG Wells. Nor let Einstein be claimed by the ignominious Time and the Rani.

As for the story itself, it’s pleasingly creepy, with enough black humour in it to recall more than a few camp, schlocky horror films. Its gleefully brash use of walking cadavers as monsters is stronger stuff than the show eventual settled into; to this day Mrs Spandrell can’t get past the opening pre-credit sequence with old Mrs Peace (Jennifer Hill) stumbling through the streets, howling. It strays into interesting moral territory when the Doctor finds virtue in the Gelth’s alleged plan to inhabit the bodies of human dead to save their species, and Rose is opposed to the idea. But the last minute u-turn of the Gelth into treacherous invaders neutralizes that debate which might have lead the story to something other than a “it’s time to stop the monsters now” kind of ending.

Truth be told, as good as The Unquiet Dead is, nearly all its tricks – be they ghost stories, Victoriana or zombified monsters – have been done better by later stories. Its lasting claim to fame is showing us how these celebrity historicals work and inventing a new sub-genre for 21st century Who. If they really have gone forever, then that’s its legacy – creating a Who specific subset right up there with ‘base under siege’, ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘multi-Doctor’.

But if they ever come back, I’ve still got my list of candidates: Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop… sorry, that’s Time and the Rani again. It sneaks in everywhere!

LINK TO Into the Dalek: uncertainty about whether the monsters are good or evil.

NEXT TIME… well, he didn’t come by Shetland pony, Jamie! We defrost The Ice Warriors

 

 

Bouquets, Botcherbies and Father’s Day (2005)

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The last time I randomed a story by Paul Cornell, I speculated on which Doctor Who stories contained each Doctor’s best performances. The equivalent of awarding Oscars for Doctors. 2005 weepy Father’s Day gives me the chance to offer a (ahem) companion piece.

Which companions would we give Oscars too? Actually, maybe we should call them Botcherbies, after Doctor Who‘s own thespian Oscar from The Two Doctors. And then we won’t be infringing any trademarks.

(This reminds me of one of my favourite passages from Robert Holmes’ masterful novelisation of that story, where Oscar recounts that a critic of the Boston Globe said that one of his performances was ‘quite monumental’, but then added ‘in its ineptitude’. That’s apropos of nothing. I just love that book.)

This episode, carefully plotted and expertly directed, is heartbreaking and there’s not many Doctor Who stories you can say that about it. Billie Piper seizes the opportunity to reveal a vulnerability in Rose, and in doing so gives her best performance in the role. This script asks a lot of her – to show delight turning to disillusionment and the sheer raw grief of losing a parent –  and there isn’t a moment when her performance feels false or pushed too far. She’s outstanding.

So a Botcherby nod for Piper. Who else should we dish out nominations to? With the caveat that not every companion gets the chance to star in an episode like Father’s Day, where the plot revolves around them. It’s pretty hard, for instance, to pinpoint a standout performance for Louise Jameson. Even though she was excellent as Leela in all her stories, she was never given a story which focused on her character and gave her a chance to show what she could do. We could say that about many a companion, hopefully without causing offence by omission.

When a companion gets an episode which concentrates on them, there’s a chance to outshine even the Doctor. Catherine Tate in Turn Left is a spectacular example. Few would have guessed after her debut performance in The Runaway Bride that the character of Donna could generate the gravitas needed to have her be our guide through post-apocalyptic England. Tate nails it, being brave and scared, embarking on a suicide mission to the past to save the future. Out of the combination of comic character and harrowing setting, something truly touching emerges.

Classic Who gave its companions fewer chances to hog the limelight. Some had to wait until their encore performances to offer they’re best work. I love Nicholas Courtney’s performance in Mawdryn Undead, which gives us more of an insight into the Brigadier than we had in seven years of UNIT stories. Here, he gives us two versions of the same character, and makes them both instantly recognisable through body movement and demeanor. For the first time, we see the deleterious effects of being part of the Doctor’s retinue, and in the Brigadier’s case it’s a taste of post traumatic stress disorder. One of my favorites.

Years later, Elisabeth Sladen would get the chance to give a similar character reading in School Reunion, and she also manages expresses the loss and longing of life without the Doctor, despite the script’s tiresome efforts to whip up Doctor jealousy between her and Rose. It’s a touching performance, but for me her Botcherby worthy turn lies in the classic series, specifically in The Hand of Fear. Her ‘possessed’ acting in that story is particularly eerie but of course, it’s those last few scenes when she’s leaving the Doctor that her greatness is really on show: funny, sad and so clearly expressing so much which is unsaid, it alone is worth the price of admission.

The 1960s episodes don’t give our companion friends much to work with, as this was an era which paid their roles little consistent attention, but how about Jacqueline Hill in The Aztecs? It’s those scenes with Tlotoxl that I’m thinking of, showing Barbara’s inner strength and poise during her combative moments, but also her deep insecurity when she falters. To pinpoint one moment when she shines, how about when she takes a knife to Tlotoxl’s throat to save Ian? A desperate and surprisingly violent move which a few stories earlier, might have belonged to the Doctor. If we could see  The Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve, we might be able to properly assess Peter Purves in a similar set of circumstances as Steven. But otherwise, the black and white era offers little else in the way of Botcherby worthy companion turns.

Janet Fielding’s performances as the Mara possessed Tegan in Kinda and Snakedance have rightly been praised. On first glance, you might say that Snakedance, which contains the most screen time for evil Tegan, is the Botcherby worthy one. But while the sequel offers greater scope, the original packs the harder punch. Fielding’s performance first as the terrified girl being tormented by an unknown demon in Part One, then as the Mara infested version in Part Two are both palpable and real, and must have been a huge factor in commissioning a sequel. It’s even more of an achievement when you consider she’s left unconscious for the whole of Part Three and returns to her normal state in Part Four, so the considerable impact of that role is achieved in a very short time.

There’s one example of a companion’s best performance being outside Doctor Who. Captain Jack Harkness, of course, has his own show, Torchwood. John Barrowman gives some impressive performances in each series, but it’s the third, Torchwood: Children of Earth which really stands out. Here, Jack is put through an emotional wringer, losing his lover in his attempts to save the world, and ultimately sacrificing the life of his grandson to do so, and atone for the sins of his past. It’s a storyline which Doctor Who could never offer the Doctor, let alone a companion, but in Torchwood, Barrowman gets his chance to show what he can do.

A couple of others kicking around: Sophie Aldred showing us Ace growing up and discovering her inner animal in Survival. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill giving their all in their tear jerking finale The Angels Take Manhattan. Alex Kingston, never better perhaps than on debut in Silence in the Library.  And in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, the story which started this whole thread, I suggested David Tennant gave his Botcherby best, but we shouldn’t overlook Freema Agyeman, who beautifully played lost, desperate, determined and in love all at once.

What have I forgotten? Best turns by companions or Doctors? Comment away, faithful readers. Then let’s start planning the after party.

LINK TO The Mark of the Rani: hmmm. How about both feature companions with dead fathers?

NEXT TIME: You’re too short and bossy, and your nose is all funny. Add the Cybermen and we really do have a Nightmare in Silver.

Television, resurrection and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (2005)

badwolf

Does any story start and end in such wildly different places as this odd combo we call Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways?

It starts when the Doctor (angsty Christopher Eccleston), Rose (punky fish Billie Piper) and Jack (flashy John Barrowman) find themselves trapped within three different television shows. The Doctor is in fly on the wall voyeur-fest Big Brother. Rose is on quiz show The Weakest Link and Jack on fashion advice whatsit What Not to Wear. They have obviously landed in the reality/lifestyle/game shows department (they were lucky to avoid Celebrity Wrestling). What a pity they didn’t land in the drama department though; we might have seen them in Spooks, or EastEnders. Or maybe even Doctor Who. Now that would be meta.

(If they had, perhaps one of them could have landed in 1966’s The Celestial Toymaker, where Doctor Hartnell and co found themselves competing in a range of deadly games.  Or perhaps in 1985’s Vengeance on Varos where a docile populace is kept oppressed through a steady diet of torture videos. Or maybe in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks where a human is wired into the Daleks’ mainframe to provide the imagination and innovation the Daleks have bred out of themselves. Even in the first year of its relaunch, Doctor Who was happy to mine the best of ideas from its past.)

The episode suggests that these shows, transmitted ad nauseum, survive until the year 200100, but with hindsight that’s obviously wishful thinking. Even watching it in 2016 is like watching a historical re-enactment. Big Brother may be struggling on in some jurisdictions but is no longer the cultural phenomenon it was. The Weakest Link is long since broken and What Not to Wear has been consigned to the great charity bin in the sky.

So what felt like up to the minute social commentary in 2005, feels passé now. But such is the risk of referencing any contemporary cultural products in any piece of media, and it’s happened ever since Susan Foreman grooved out to Johnny Smith and the Common Men so many moons ago.

But what might get forgotten watching Bad Wolf now, is the common thread through those TV shows our heroes are catapulted into. It’s not just that they were so called ‘reality TV’. It’s also that they were unrelentingly cruel and humiliating.

The acid hosts of What Not to Wear regularly reduced their guests to tears with their brutal commentary. The Weakest Link’s host harangued and insulted the show’s contestants, augmenting a format which required contestants to vote each other off. And Big Brother’s cameras never shied away from a contestant reduced to tears, and zoomed in mercilessly on any faux pas. In each case, it wasn’t such a leap to imagine new versions of these programs where people were executed, not simply evicted.

Bad Wolf comes to us pre-spoiled these days, but in 2005, had you remained spoiler-free, you may not have known that the Daleks were going to turn up (although I suspect that most shrewd fans had guessed that they would show up for the season finale). The surreal placement of our three heroes in twisted versions of popular TV shows helped maintain the uncertainty about who the masterminds were behind this plan.  We may not have been surprised if an ethereal Toymaker or a power crazed slug or some similarly bizarre adversary had dreamed up this nutty scheme. But it doesn’t seem like the Daleks’ style at all. That’s nice misdirection from writer Russell T Davies; giving us a plot too surreal for the Daleks and them placing them right in the middle of it.

But actually, surrealism and the Daleks are not necessarily the strangers we might think. As early as 1965 we saw them as exhibits in a space museum, sight seeing on the Empire State Building and sharing the screen with Frankenstein’s monster. The Evil of the Daleks has some of them turned into playful children, and Revelation of the Daleks has them running a funeral parlour. Victory of the Daleks has them serving tea and last year’s The Witch’s Familiar has them consumed by their own excrement. And next random is Daleks in Manhattan which mixes a plot to turn themselves into human hybrids with depression era musicals. So in fact, there’s something about their unstinting metal villainy that makes us want to juxtapose them with the unexpected, in a way which doesn’t happen to say, the Cybermen.

Even so, the madness of Bad Wolf readily gives way to the more traditional action adventure of The Parting of the Ways. We’ve had nine seasons of finales now, so we’ve come to expect a big finish at the end of any given run of episodes. But each one has got successively more complicated, often requiring a detailed understanding of what’s happened in the previous 12 episodes. The Parting of the Ways feels much simpler. There’s a shedload of angry Daleks on the way. The Doctor’s got to stop them with not enough time or resources. As simple and as brilliant as that.

It’s also very grim. Everyone dies, as if in repudiation of the Doctor’s happy exclamation at the end of The Doctor Dances. All the humans, all the Daleks. The cruellest (though most stylish) death is that handed out to would-be companion Lynda with a Y (Jo Joyner), exterminated from a window outside a spaceship by a Dalek, whose headlamps illuminate its famous catchcry in the silent vacuum of space. The most brutal and perfunctory though is all those people in Australasia, whose fate is potently demonstrated through a simple pixelated outline, melted like ice-cream in the sun.

Only our three heroes survive, and they all have to die first and be resurrected, in various fashions. Jack’s revivification will be enough to fuel four seasons of Torchwood. Rose turns into a superbeing with the power to save the day; this will become a recurring theme in RTD’s Who, with the same thing happening to the Doctor and then Donna in subsequent season finales. The Doctor, of course, regenerates, the final iconic element of the old series to be introduced in the new.

What will happen to the Earth, now free of its malevolent broadcast empire, but dealing with melted continents? What happens to everyone still trapped in the games? Doesn’t matter, we’ve moved on. A flash and a bang, and David Tennant’s smile gives us an early but unmistakable signal that we’re in for a very different Doctor to Eccleston’s tortured loner. This story started by presenting reimagined versions of famous TV shows, and it ends as a reimagined version of itself, a famous TV show.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: There is an inventive stab at Raxacoricofallapatorius.

LINK TO The Monster of Peladon: Like the apparitions of Aggedor, the games of Satellite 5 are not what they seem.

NEXT TIME: You put the devil in me. We’re off to old New York for Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks.

The 80s, media and The Long Game (2005)

the long game 1

So, let’s go back to the Doctor Who production office, late 1980s. Script editor Andrew Cartmel is looking for new writers who can breathe new life into a show now a quarter of a century old. He picks up a script from the slush pile by some newcomer called Russell T Davies. That script is original version of The Long Game.

It eventually got to the screen in 2005. I remember watching it for the first time and being reminded of the late 1980s. This is a story which feels like it could slip in to seasons 24 or 25. And I’ve seen that sentiment expressed elsewhere too. Looking at this story again got me asking myself why exactly.

There are specific story elements which have been copied across. Like Paradise Towers, this story features a many storeyed structure, accessed by a lift. Both stories feature characters trying to get to the highest floor. On floor 139, there’s a busy space-age market complete with junk food ala Dragonfire.  Floor 500 feels a bit like Dragonfire too, where a sinister man runs a business in a refrigerated environment, employing zombies to do his work. And back to Paradise Towers, that man turns out to be the slave of a growling, inarticulate beast permanently installed in the infrastructure. That beast is a pink, fleshy, organic lump, like the oversized brain in Time and the Rani.

Thematically though, this is allegory and social commentary, presented through a society which although highly stylised is a twisted version of our own. To that end, it’s reminiscent of The Happiness Patrol, a critique of Thatcherism as potent as The Long Game‘s critique of broadcast media. Any doubt that writer Russell T Davies was specifically parodying Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp empire is dispelled when the Editor (Simon Pegg) looks straight down the camera. And says ‘Gotcha!’, a clear reference to The Sun’s infamous headline used during the Falklands war.

The baleful influence of Satellite 5, The Long Game tells us, is that it holds humanity back, stunting its growth. This is presumably the threat Davies sees NewsCorp and its ilk representing. ‘We are the news,’ says journalist Cathica (Christine Adams), succinctly expressing the element of  media control this story fears; an populace dependent on one source for its information is open to manipulation.

It’s a common fear. But watching it these days, in the wake of the Milly Dowler affair, there are elements which seem oddly prescient. The episode’s most visceral image is of a stream of compressed information being fed directly into people’s brains, exposed to the outside world by a dinky automated hatch. There’s something about that image which speaks of the invasion of privacy experienced by victims of NewsCorp’s phone hacking; access to secrets and the most private of thoughts, just a brain spike or a phone call away.

It’s the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, midway through his annus Doctoralis) who recognises that the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire is being held back. ‘This technology’s wrong,’ he says. ‘You’ve got a door in your head!’ But here we strike one of the story’s problems.

This future world is 90 years behind where it should be, and that’s a gap which is difficult for the audience to grasp. To all intents and purposes this looks like a miraculous futuristic world, where brain surgery takes minutes and humans interface directly with computers. How can we tell the difference between this amazing world, and what it’s meant to be like with 90 years’ more development? Perhaps we needed a snippet more dialogue, to illustrate the point:

ROSE: Oh I get it. Like if we went back home and everyone was walking around like it was 1915. Telegrams instead of text messages. Carriages not cars.

Except, you know, heaps better and written by RTD.

Anyway, back to the 80’s. Whether it was a conscious decision or not I don’t know, but the design work has a particularly 80s flair to it. Primary colours, reds and blues dominate the colour palette. Rose’s smart red zippy jacket isn’t that far away from something Bonnie Langford might have worn in season 24. And elsewhere it’s power suits and elaborate hair… It just has a bit if that 80s glitz going on. A few synth crashes in the soundtrack wouldn’t have been out of place.   Evoking, lord help us, the plasticy sounds of Keff McCulloch.

Then we have boy genius Adam (Bruno Langley) who turns out to be such a disappointment to us all. He starts off as a potential rival to the Doctor for Rose’s affections, but he faints at the first sight of a green screened star scape, so Rose knows instantly he’s not cut out for 13 episodes of this a year. He brings back memories of that other boy companion of the 80s whose name starts with Ad and who came to a similarly undistinguished end.

But to his good fortune, he gets a number of brilliant scenes with Tamsin Grieg’s deliciously arch Nurse. (It’s a little odd to think that this fairly unremarked upon episode has two such awesome comic talents in Grieg and Pegg in it. Both warrant return appearances in new roles.) She turns from pained administrative fatigue to flirty temptress at the sight of Adam’s shiny money rod. She slyly upsells the poor hopeless lad to the premier option with a playful flick of her finger. Adam has no chance against her. Looking for an extra companion, Doctor? She’s the one you want.

There’s another pretty strong link to the 80s and that’s through one off (so far) director Brian Grant. Grant, it turns out, directed some of the most iconic 80s pop videos. Kids in America, Physical, Private Dancer… The list goes on. Who better to direct this tribute to classic Doctor Who‘s final years? And if the much mooted musical episode of Doctor Who ever gets off the ground, then surely it’s time to get Grant back. Doctor Who via Duran Duran and Donna Summer. C’mon, you’d watch that. Who wouldn’t?

Back in the Doctor Who production office in the late 80s, Cartmel sends Davies’ script back with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Apparently, he recommends writing something about mortgages; we can be thankful RTD ignored that advice. But it just goes to show that a good idea is worth hanging on to and nearly twenty years later this product of the 80s makes it to screen. Now that’s a long game.

LINK to Galaxy 4. Both feature hideous, immobile alien creatures which are more than they seem.

NEXT TIME… How can I go to the Admiralty with a story like that? We see devils in The Sea Devils.

The Monster, the Doctor and Dalek (2005)

dalek

We are so used to Doctor Who these days. We get new episodes every year and a special at Christmas. We’ve had eight series and over 100 new episodes. We take it for granted that every year there’ll be more of it. But it wasn’t always the case.

Back in 2005, each new episode was a miracle. Everyone had thought Doctor Who was dead. The idea that it might come back was only a dream. The news that it was coming back for a 13 episode series on BBC1 was almost unbelievable. Then on top of all that it turned out to be good…  Well, to steal a word from Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, it was fantastic. Meaning it was like a fantasy.

Episode 6 in that joyous run is Dalek. Cunningly held back to counter any mid season slide in ratings, this was an event within the bigger event of the show’s return. And while the other episodes had been good,  I distinctly remember watching this on broadcast and thinking this was where it really felt like the series was clicking. If it weren’t for those gas mask zombies, it would surely be the stand out episode of that first year of Doctor Who‘s revival. Perhaps it still is.

Its job was to reintroduce the Daleks as an integral part of the series iconography, to an audience who had not given a flying Thal about them for about twenty years. Who didn’t even know them, unless they had seen them as the butt of jokes on TV ads and sketch shows. It pulls off this trick by concentrating on just one Dalek, running amok in a billionaire tyrant’s underground headquarters. And look, we all want this for Murdoch, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that it does it methodically and effectively; it drip feeds information about the Dalek, gradually revealing its powers, confounding expectations about its limitations, so that by the end of the episode, they are firmly established as big metal badasses. In the season finale, there’s a moment when Rose acknowledges a job well done in this episode when she says, ‘There’s thousands of them now. We could hardly stop one. What’re we going to do?’. We know what she means because the Dalek in Dalek is so formidable.

But I think the really clever thing this episode does is the role reversal between the Doctor and the monster.

We’re used to having villains presented as a dark mirror of the Doctor. In fact that might be essential to any hero/villain relationship. Anyway, you can list them off by heart. The Master, Davros, the Valeyard… but even comparatively b-list villains, like Borusa or Professor Lazarus to choose two random examples, are always there for us to compare to the Doctor.

To directly compare the Doctor to a monster is rarer, but that’s what Dalek does, through role reversal. The Doctor for instance, played with saliva propelling emotion by Eccleston, behaves in a very un-Doctorly way. Upon first discovering the Dalek, the Doctor does not do any of his normal tricks. He doesn’t negotiate or befriend or cajole. He just tries to exterminate it. The first instinct of a Dalek.

The Dalek meanwhile demonstrates its Doctory ingenuity at every turn. It absorbs energy from Rose and escapes by tricking its enemies into a false sense of security before suckering their faces. Its next step is to absorb information. ‘The Dalek’s a genius,’ the Doctor warns. So just like him then, but murderous. Oh, he’s that too now.

For the rest of the episode, the Doctor is largely impotent. He can merely react to what Dalek does. It’s his own tactic turned against him. While the Dalek methodically climbs the levels of Van Statten’s space museum, countering every attempt to destroy it with silent determination, the Doctor’s reduced to tapping on a laptop, shutting bulkheads by remote control.

This culminates in a famous scene where the Dalek chooses to destroys a room full of soldiers by setting the sprinkler system off and electrocuting them with one zappy shot. It’s interesting because there’s no plot reason for it to show such an innovative approach to death; we all know it could just pick off those guards one by one. It chooses the showy way of killing, presumably as a display of strength and to terrify any onlookers. It certainly seems to work on the Doctor, who ends up bawling at the screen, like a showrunner who’s reading on doctorwhonews.net that his season premiere has been leaked online: ‘why can’t you just DIE?!’ But this is surely the Doctor’s modus operandi: come up with a clever solution which not only does the job but underlines your point.

The Dalek gets a bad dose of mercy from being touched by Rose, meaning it thinks twice before exterminating all and sundry. But it also uses Rose as a hostage, manipulating the Doctor’s emotions by threatening to kill her so that he will open a bulkhead (cue more laptop tapping). Now that in itself is not overly Doctor-esque, but when it says “What use are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?” its awkward lack of familiarity with human relationships sounds a bit like someone else we know.

By episode’s end, the Dalek has used guile and intelligence to work its way to freedom, and stands at the finale with the spunky girl by its side. The Doctor on the other hand has resorted to wielding a big gun. Rose says to him, ‘What the hell are you changing into?’ making the implied point explicit. As it turns out, the story’s conclusion has very little to do with him. The Dalek commits suicide with Rose’s consent, while the Doctor is reduced to a bystander. In a strange way, the Dalek has won, while the Doctor has failed at every turn.

We’re so used to Doctor Who these days, but back when we had just 13 episodes of new Who, this one felt like a keeper. It does its job. It brings back the Daleks. But it also forces us to look at the Doctor in a new light. And that’s an astonishingly confident move only 6 episodes in.

‘You would make a good Dalek’ the monster tells the Doctor. He could at least be polite enough to repay the compliment.

LINK to Silver Nemesis. Because there’s a Cyberman’s head on display in Van Statten’s museum, this is the first time we’ve seen one since Silver Nemesis. Unless you count Dimensions in Time, and if you do, god help you.

NEXT TIME: Are you picking your nose? More bubbling lumps of hate in Revelation of the Daleks