Tag Archives: Clara

Cryptic, caustic and Under the Lake/Before the Flood (2015)

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Let’s say you’re a wounded alien warlord stranded in an ersatz Soviet training camp in Scotland in 1980. (I know. That old story, right?) You need to send a message to your homeys to come and pick you up and heal you. So you can set up a rescue beacon. Or call a space Uber or something right?

Sure, you could do that… if you’re from Planet Mundane! But the Fisher King (Neil Fingleton, and the voice of Peter Serafinowicz) is not. Nowhere near. No, he prefers a more ingenious method. He scratches some alien symbols on the wall of a spaceship. These symbols have the power to embed themselves in your subconscious without you knowing or wanting them to. Y’know, like dialogue by Eric Saward.

The symbols are actually the directions needed to find the Fisher King, but this is no simple set of galactic coordinates. Nothing so helpful. These directions are in the form of a particularly oblique brain teaser. The instructions in question are “the darkness, the sword, the foresaken, the temple,” which is a bit like giving the ambulance a cryptic crossword puzzle to solve in order to find your house so they can stop you from dying.

So anyway, the directions you so desperately need to get to your would-be rescuers are lying dormant in the minds of unsuspecting graffiti readers. To transmit those directions, the folks with the quizzical message embedded in their brains, have to die. Then they (somehow) turn into spectral beings with murderous intent, all the better to bolster their numbers and boost the signal and get His Majesty of the Fishers home and hosed.

Who said writer Toby Whithouse likes to over complicate his underlying concepts? Oh that’s right, it was me. Here. And here.

Now let’s say you’re a caustic old Time Lord whose accent makes him sound right at home in 1980s Scotland (Peter Capaldi). You need to find out how this whole “ghosts in the Drum” thing started, so you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.

(The Drum being the name of the underwater base which is housing all the action. Its main feature is lots of lovely corridors to run down. The lake it’s submerged in never gets a name, but I like to think of it as Lake Siege. Then it could literally be a base under siege. Well, I’d laugh.)

Anyway, you travel back in time to before the lake was flooded.  There you discover the Fisher King and work out his nefarious, if overcomplicated, scheme. Easy enough to stop that – just blow up the dam wall and drown the sucker.

Thing is, you need to send a message to yourself from the future to spur you into action. So probably the easiest thing to do is write yourself a note. Maybe on the side of the spaceship, seeing as that’s where everyone goes for some light reading.

Doctor. The thing causing all the ghosts is a big alien nasty called the Fisher King and Clara’s next on his hit list. Go back in time and blow up the dam. Record the roar of the Fisher King as you do, so you can trap the ghosts in the Faraday cage. Also, never wear that jumper with the holes in it again, you look a right berk. Love, the Doctor.

Simple, right? But we don’t do “simple” around here, oh no. So what you do is write a piece of sentient software (in the TARDIS, I suppose) which creates a hologram (somehow. Not sure how it gets projected) that can walk and talk around everyone else. It will look like one of the ghosts and activate at a pre-determined time once you’ve left the base. You know, just to freak everyone out.

Then your Doctor Ghost will start to mouth a sequence of names, in order of who’s going to die (again, it might be simpler for him to just say what’s going on, but a silent list of names is much more complex). Including Clara in this list will be the catalyst for you to act, but if you throw in one of the crew members’ names before hers, that crew member will needlessly die, so watch out for that.

(To make matter worse, that crew member is the glorious Alice O’Donnell (Morven Christie), one half of my new favourite twin set of would-be companions, O’Donnell and Bennett (Arsher Ali). She’s full of fangirl enthusiasm, he’s all caution mixed with scientific curiosity. Plus both have practical skills from working in a military base and they have unresolved sexual tension between them. Perfect! When they board the TARDIS for our quick trip back to 1980, they look absolutely right beside Capaldi’s spiky Doctor. They could have been the Barbara and Ian of our times. Ah well.)

So your holographic ghost will be mouthing names spookily but also wandering about the place. In this way, your ghost can also pointlessly menace the remaining crew members by, say, helpfully letting all the ghosts out of the Faraday cage and letting them continue their killing spree. This isn’t strictly necessary but it extends the terrifying ordeal a bit longer for everyone and keep them on their toes.

I shouldn’t moan. I genuinely like this story with its creepy setting and its likable characters. I’d say it’s Whithouse’s best work for the show, though there’s a lot to be said for the old adage, “keep it simple.”

But why characters who want to communicate with their future selves insist on leaving cryptic messages all over the place instead of just writing a note always baffles me. I call it the Bad Wolf paradox and it’s far more prevalent than the “bootstrap paradox.” I wish the Doctor would spend a pre-credits sequence explaining that one.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when Prentis suggests the Doctor could “oppress him” the subtitles suggest “appraise him” like he’s on Antiques Roadshow.

LINK TO The Greatest Show in the Galaxy: each feature avatars of Doctor Who fans – O’Donnell and the Whizz Kid.

NEXT TIME… You stupid butcher! It’s time to embark on The Crusade.

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Towers, telephones and The Bells of Saint John (2013)

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They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. Steven Moffat.

The little Spandrells are watching a show at the moment called Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures. In it, an odd looking man (all teeth and curls, like a young Tom Baker) who works in a museum, travels back to the time of the dinosaurs to have some mildly educative adventures. He travels in time via a grandfather clock, which sits incongruously on whichever ancient landscape it arrives in. A TARDIS rip off, if I ever saw one.

Except, it works in a different thematic way to the blue police box exterior of the TARDIS. The grandfather clock very clearly says, it’s about time, kids. But when they made Doctor Who, they didn’t give him a clock, they gave him a police box – an everyday sight, a public object, an outpost of authority and a very British innovation. It symbolised lots of things, but what it didn’t do was baldly state, this is a time machine.

So, no clock. And crucially, no telephone either. It had no communications link back to 1960s England, or indeed any of its destinations. This police box was cut off from everything. Classic Who was made in the days when to conceive of a telephone was to imagine your handset connected to every other one by a complex array of cables. No such cable stretched to Skaro or Marinus. In fact, it takes until Logopolis for the show to visually acknowledge that police boxes even had phones. The TARDIS certainly didn’t.

By the 21st Century, things have changed, and the TARDIS is as connected as any other aspect of our modern lives by telephony. By the phone in the police box’s little exterior cupboard, by the one on the console, by various companions’ mobiles and even by the Doctor’s. The Bells of Saint John takes its title from the TARDIS’s phone (the little cupboardy one) and from the life-changing call which comes through on it, from impossible girl Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) to the Doctor in medieval seclusion (Matt Smith).

This seems like a particularly Steven Moffaty trait. After all, he first used this conceit of the exterior phone unexpectedly ringing in The Empty Childand returned to it inThe Time of the Doctor. But it was his predecessor Russell T Davies who first put a phone in the TARDIS in World War Three. And his supercharging of Rose’s Nokia 3801 in The End of the World confirmed that in this new version of Who, our heroes were not as cut off from their homes and loved ones as their 20th century counterparts were. They could call across space and even time. Like E.T., they could phone home.

This makes sense. The Doctor has a machine which can traverse the universe and its entire history. Technology way beyond our grasp. Of course, he’d have a phone. It would be kind of weird if he didn’t.

But that’s not why the TARDIS is a phone box; it’s not a symbol of communication. It’s not a lifeline between us and the Doctor. It wasn’t, in its original conception, a place you could call to or from for help. In fact, because it was explicitly disconnected from everything else in the universe, the fact that the police box had a useless phone reinforced how isolated our heroes were. The one thing they couldn’t do was call for help.

It may seem like a small detail, but giving the TARDIS telecommunications changes the show. Once you can, ahem, call the Doctor, he becomes the hero you can summon when needed. Winston Churchill, for instance, calls directly through to the console. Clara calls when she needs help cooking a turkey. It’s the show’s equivalent of Batman’s bat signal. Phone him up and our hero comes running. Add this to our modern Doctors’ ability to steer the TARDIS with pinpoint accuracy, and we really are a long way from the show’s beginnings, where the police box was a cosmic lifeboat, tossed on the waves of time and space, directionless, contactless and utterly isolated.

****

Telephones and computers, and what they might do to us, was the source of much concern in 1966’s The War Machinesand it’s nice to see how little has changed by The Bells of Saint John. There’s always mileage for Doctor Who in technophobia, it’s just that by 2013, that fear is centred on wifi. There’s still a big tower though, from which the bad guys can broadcast their evil, brain harvesting scheme.

The Shard, like the Post Office Tower back in ‘66, represents another concern of modernity. In The War Machines, it was technology itself which grew a mind of its own and got ideas above its base station. Here, it’s technology wielded by a corporation, from within a monolith celebrating capitalism. It’s the stuff of conspiracy theories; shadowy suits manipulating us with a casual swipe up or down on an iPad. They can even make aeroplanes fall from the sky. This is playing on very contemporary fears.

It makes sense that here is where the Great Intelligence should make its return. Being a formless yet sentient spirit, it seems right that it now should lurk within the Cloud, like some particularly malignant piece of code. Certainly, it seems more fitting than in The Snowmen, where it represented the Victorian fascination with the paranormal (if you squint). Funnily enough, though, that’s what the Intelligence was in its 60s conception – a mystic supernatural presence from beyond the astral plane, not a ghost hiding in the machine. But – spoiler alert – we’ll get there is a couple of posts’ time.

For now, let’s just reflect on another of this episode’s big flashy statements. Never mind a telephone, this Doctor’s got serious technology and a motorbike! He rides up the side of the Shard with only a perfunctory line about anti-gravs to cover the implausibly of it all, running straight over the shiny surface of capitalism with those big rubber tyres. “Can he actually do that?” asks an astonished supporting character. Dude, this guy’s an ancient alien superhero with a time machine, a magic wand and a direct line through to his snog box. What can’t he actually do?

Yup, times have really changed.

LINK TO Amy’s Choice. Both Matt Smith stories, and hooray for an easy link.

NEXT TIME…God save the Queen, it’s Empress of Mars.

Friendly buttons, family dramas and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013)

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I once said to a fellow fan that I disliked stories which end too conveniently. I think I used Terror of the Autons as an example. Towards the end of that story, there are Autons everywhere. The Nestene is descending. All’s going to hell in a handbasket. Then the Doctor (or the Master, to be precise) flicks a switch, the Nestene’s repelled and all the Autons topple over. All too handy, I complained. The other fan looked at me beadily and said, “you must dislike a lot of Doctor Who stories then.”

He had a point. But ever since the show returned in 2005, the use of a narrative shortcut to drive us to the climax has become more prominent. It happens at about the 35 minute mark. Usually, it’s a near-miraculous catch all development that saves the day in about 5 minutes, no matter how widespread the problem, how many monsters there are or how desperate the situation has become. Usually, it come courtesy of a gadget, or a magical substance or a reversal of the bad guy’s own powers.

I call it the “magic switch”, meaning there’s often a big switch to throw to solve the story’s problem. But it’d be equally valid to call it a “big friendly button”.

What then to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which blatantly uses a big friendly button to conclude its story? Openly acknowledges it. Puts it on screen and gives it a name. Rarely has the series so boldly referenced its own narrative limitations. Why on earth draw attention to it? Unless writer Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat were looking for a wry in-joke. “We’ve now reached the point in the episode for the magic switch, so here it is!”

I think it’s more than self-knowing commentary. I think the big friendly button is a cry of defiance. “We know!” our authors seem to be saying. “Of course, we know. But you find a way to build up a big, bold adventure story, throw everything under the sun in it, and then wrap it up neatly in 5 mins. So sometimes we use a big friendly button. Get over it! We do that sometimes.”

*****

Ages ago, before he made 7 years of Doctor Who, the Moff once made comment on the classic show’s occasional over concentration on the TARDIS as a setting for stories. “We kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe,” he confidently declared.

But then, of course, there’s this episode, where we explore the wardrobe extensively. In the pre-publicity, the Moff declared how he’d loved and now wanted to emulate the TARDIS tour section of The Invasion of Time, indicating a change of tune about the whole Narnia/wardrobe divide. I can understand the appeal. With an extensive world within the TARDIS, there’s a world of potential adventure in their too.

Stories which use the labyrinthine TARDIS corridors as a location apply slightly different emphases each time. The Invasion of Time uses it as the setting for a hunt/chase sequence. Castrovalva uses it as a confounding maze which ensnares unwary travelers. Way back in Inside the Spaceship it was not so much vast as claustrophobic, a place which played tricks on the mind. The same all the years later in The Doctor’s Wife, where it also became a mental torture chamber for Amy and Rory.

It’s all of these things in JTTCOTT. But what it never feels like is the slow perilous climb down into the heart of the ship which the title suggests. It feels a bit like bait and switch, because the suggestion is that it’ll be a Jules Verne-style descent into the core of the beast, facing peril as our heroes break through each stratum.

Instead, it feels much more random and disjointed; not a descent deep into the craft as The Invasion of Time and Castrovalva felt like, but a journey twisting and turning in all sorts of directions. And maybe that’s appropriate, because can a multi-dimensional time ship be said to have a centre at all? Still, it doesn’t feel like a journey to anywhere in particular, but with a lot of interesting sightseeing along the way.

****

Our companions on this meandering expedition are the Van Baalen brothers: Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and Tricky (Jahvel Hall). Roughead salvage collectors, this story is the backdrop to a family drama which unfolds. It turns out that following an industrial accident, Tricky has been fooled into believing that he’s an android by Gregor. As an example of a commitment to gullibility in the face of easily accessible evidence, it’s right up there with Guy Crawford’s needless eyepatch and Countess Scarlioni’s alien marriage.

Gregor initially tries to pass it off as a joke that got a little out of hand, but later confesses he did it out of jealousy for their father’s respect. There are a couple of problems with this besides the simple straining of credulity. Firstly, the Van Baalen boys are sadly not interesting enough for us to care about their, admittedly unusual, inter-family dramas. Secondly, said dramas have nothing to do with the predicament at hand. When Gregor eventually fesses up to Tricky in a spare moment between set pieces, it should be a major revelation. But Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) who is a silent observer to this exchange, is leaning against a wall with a look that says, “and this effects me exactly how?”

****

But then, if any of this, or anything else about JTTCOTT bothers you, worry not – because none of it ever happened. Our big friendly button not only brought this story to a close, it also reset the whole affair. This kind of ending worries me more than the magic switch. If the story’s events were so inconsequential they can be erased at a moment’s notice – why were they worth watching in the first place?

All that’s left is a couple of Wizard of Oz style moments where characters kind of remember something happening to them, but can’t recall why. The Van Baalen brothers might even, if you squint, be stand-ins for the Tin Man (Tricky), the brainless scarecrow (Bram) and the cowardly lion (Gregor).  The Doctor, I suppose, has been our Wizard and Clara our Dorothy, although as I recall, Dorothy never got chased by time burnt zombie creatures and Clara doesn’t even have a little dog. And The Wizard of Oz didn’t hang around in the vehicle that transports its heroes to the site of the story. We kids want Oz, not the cyclone-borne farmhouse.

Or something like that. *Presses big friendly button*

LINK TO Planet of Fire: Companions with things burnt into their skin!

NEXT TIME: Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! We’re checking in for treatment on New Earth.

Pink, possessiveness and The Caretaker (2014)

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Look, we’d better talk about Danny Pink.

Danny, as played by Samuel Anderson, is a committed teacher, an emotionally damaged war veteran and lover of Clara (Jenna Coleman). We meet him over the course of Into the Dalek and Listen, as he and Clara engage in an awkward but ultimately successful courtship. But in The Caretaker he meets the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) and everything changes. As it tends to.

The Doctor doesn’t like Danny; no surprises there. He’s never liked his companions’ boyfriends. But with Mickey and Rory, those tensions quickly subsided into grudging respect before developing into comfortable friendships. There’s little hope of that here. The Doctor is sneeringly dismissive of Danny, refusing to acknowledge that he’s a maths teacher, just because he was once a soldier (the irritating myth that the Doctor hates soldiers, again. Does he not remember his old friend Lethbridge-Stewart was a soldier turned maths teacher?). Danny can’t stand the Doctor’s automatic assumption of superiority, labelling him as an officer. The subtext is clear. They’re fighting over Clara’s affections.

So the two men in Clara’s life finally meet and they can’t stand each other. A level of rapprochement is achieved though when Danny helps defeat the robotic Skovox Blitzer. Still, Danny doesn’t appreciate Clara’s deception and he’s highly suspicious of what happens when she periodically absconds in the TARDIS for adventures. And it’s from this point that Danny’s behaviour shifts… in a way, which hit a bum note some of the show’s audience.

Mrs Spandrell summed it up. “He’s become quite controlling of her, hasn’t he?” she noted during a sideways glance at this episode. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before. Danny’s controlling, manipulative, creepy. He wants to dictate what Clara can and can’t do. Is this reading justified?

If it is, he shows us this side of himself in record time. It starts here in The Caretaker and is ended when he gets hit by that car in the opening scene of Dark Water. That leaves only three episodes in which to cement this reputation as a possessive control freak, and in two of those, he makes only fleeting appearances.

So how does he manage to make such a bad impression with such minimal screen time? Let’s look at what he actually does to gain this reputation.

Moment 1: In The Caretaker, Danny discovers the truth about Clara and the Doctor and is upset that she hasn’t told him about it. He and the Doctor have a row, but then their combined efforts deactivate the Blitzer. When it’s all done, he gives Clara an ultimatum:

DANNY: If he ever pushes you too far, I want you to tell me, because I know what that’s like. You’ll tell me if that happens, yeah?

CLARA: Yeah, it’s a deal.

DANNY: No. It’s a promise.

CLARA: Okay. I promise.

DANNY: And if you break that promise, Clara, we’re finished.

Look, if Mrs Spandrell had been secretly moonlighting, even in a platonic sense, with some dashing adventurer, I think I’d have something to say about it too. But I think the problem here is the ultimatum; it seems like Danny’s way or the highway. And it sets up a threat – that Danny will leave her if he disobeys her – which clearly scares Clara.

What she doesn’t say here is, “Look, I’ll see whoever I like, thanks and if you can’t deal with that, too bad.” Whether that would be fair for her to say, I don’t know. But the absence of such a statement is part of the problem.

Moment 2: In Kill the Moon, the predicted boundary pushing happens and Clara returns to Earth distraught. It’s actually her who says it first:

CLARA: I’m done. It’s over. I’m finished with him, and I told him that. What is that face for? Why don’t you believe me?

DANNY: Because you’re still angry. You can never finish with anyone while they can still make you angry. Tell him when you’re calm, and then tell me.

So it’s Clara’s choice to leave. Or is it? Danny seems even handed here, but has he manipulated her, by predicting the Doctor’s behaviour and putting the seed of doubt in her mind?

Moments 3 & 4: In Mummy on the Orient Express, Danny is actually tempering Clara’s intentions.

CLARA: So, what are you saying? Just because he brought me somewhere cool, I shouldn’t dump him?

DANNY: Well, one, you can’t dump him because he’s not your boyfriend. And two, dumping him sounds a little scorched earth. You still basically get on. I think you should just enjoy your space train.

But then later in the episode, he rings her up, expecting her to have dumped him (“so is it done?” he asks). And at that point, Clara decides to lie to both Danny (by saying yes to that question) and the Doctor by saying:

CLARA: Danny. He’s fine with the idea of me and you knocking about. It was his idea that we stop but, he’s decided he doesn’t mind and neither do I.

She claims it was Danny’s idea but all indications are that it was her idea, although he did little to dissuade her. But the worrying thing is that she’s kept quiet about her decision to stay on board the TARDIS. She’s clearly at least concerned, and at worst, worried, about telling Danny. What would he do if she told him the truth?

Moment 5: In In the Forest of the Night, he notices a pile of unmarked homework in the TARDIS and realises she’s been on board.

DANNY: I just want to know the truth. I don’t care what it is. I just want to know it. Like Maebh said. Like the forest. Fear a little bit less, trust a bit more.

CLARA: Okay. Well…

DANNY: No, not now. Go home and do your marking. Think about it, then tell me. I saved you from a tiger today. I deserve at least that.

See, it’s interesting this. On one hand, Danny seems to have a valid gripe. He’s concerned about Clara’s safety while in the company of the Doctor and she keeps lying to him about it.

But if any of the blame for this situation is his, it’s never acknowledged. His lines often position him as a victim – I know what that’s like, I just want to know the truth – but then end with an instruction, tell him when you’re calm, think about it, then tell me. He’s reasonable and reassuring in one breath, but issuing orders in the next. And Clara always seems to be in the wrong.

It’s hard to pinpoint, but I think on balance, Danny Pink the controlling boyfriend is definitely there. It’s hinted at in the writing and gently reinforced by Anderson’s performance. Perhaps unintentionally in both instances. And although it might all be an unhappy accident, maybe instances of male characters trying to influence female characters who they can/can’t see and what they can/can’t do, should just be avoided.

LINK TO The Christmas Invasion. Both set in modern day London.

NEXT TIME: We’ve come (to) Full Circle.

Underdogs, overlords and The Girl Who Died (2015)

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Of all the Doctors to star in a Doctor Who version of The Mighty Ducks, Peter Capaldi’s acerbic version seems one of the most unlikely. (Not the most unlikely, which would surely be Hartnell. “What, dear boy? I prefer walking to skating any day.”) Still, that’s what happens in The Girl Who Died, as he becomes responsible for training a group of hopeless Vikings for a fight against a group of relentless alien brutes, the Mire. It’s your classic underdog story, played pretty much for laughs, with Vikings too clumsy, too uncoordinated or too afraid of blood to be of any use.

The laughs can’t last for long though. The stakes are much higher than for a hockey match, football game or Jamaican bobsled team. If the Mire win, everyone in this village dies. The weight of that rests heavily on the Doctor’s shoulders.

This is a great episode for Capaldi, who gets to show that responsibility on every square inch of that deeply lined face. But he also gets to be funny and soulful. My favourite aspect is his ability to hear and translate the cries of a baby. P-Cap sells it. You really believe that he can speak baby and that his outlook on the fate of this ragtag bunch is changed irrevocably because of it.

On top of that, he gets to play out the Doctor’s grief and anger when his new friend Ashildr (Maisie Williams) is killed in battle, his furious determination to bring her back to life and the slow, hangover of a realisation that he may have sentenced this young girl to immortality. For a jokey script, it ends on a note of foreboding. In fact, it’s not miles away from the feel of Donald Cotton’s Hartnell stories, with historical settings full of gags which turn serious in the final reel.

But there’s something great about how the Doctor manages to beat the Mire. As Clara (Jenna Coleman) points out to him, teaching people to fight is not his style and she knows he’s not going to win until he comes up with a more Doctorly plan. This he eventually does, and as he says, it’s a doozy, complete with subterfuge, a dance, an elaborate pulley system, space YouTube and a tub of electric eels. Even by the Doctor’s standards, it’s mental. But he proves once again that the bullies and the warmongers can be overcome by using your brain. As essentially Doctor Who as that message is, it can never be said enough.

Then there’s Clara, who’s continuing on her journey to would-be Doctordom. She gets herself transported to the Mire’s spacecraft and straight into a conversation with Odin (David Schofield, who’s fine but oh, it woulda coulda shoulda been BRIAN BLESSED!) in which she very nearly manages to end the story 30 minutes early by scaring him off, with threats of advanced technology and half a pair of sonic sunglasses. And Coleman carries it brilliantly with exactly the sort poise that infuriates fans who hate her getting more screen time than the Doctor.

The other side of Clara shown here is her indispensability in getting the Doctor to win through. She is not so much his teacher, as shown in Into the Dalek, but a sort of motivational coach. When he’s ready to abandon the Vikings because they haven’t had the common sense to take his suggestion about fleeing, she gently questions him until he decides to save them – a decision she knows he’ll make, with some prodding from her. Later, when he’s despairing about the general rubbishness of his fighting force, she presses him to change tactics. She’s a prompt for his actions. Almost his manipulator.

It’s a co-dependent relationship. The Doctor needs Clara in order to function like a hero. Clara needs the Doctor to show her how to become a hero. It’s not exactly a cozy relationship, but between them, they are a functioning team, each making up for the other’s shortcomings. So it makes dramatic sense to throw in a third character to shake them up.

And so to Ashildr, the village’s storyteller and feisty teenage girl. Despite her young age, she’s a catalyst for the story’s big events. It’s her recklessness which leads to the Mire deciding to stay and fight and gives us the Mighty Ducks. It’s her puppetry hobby that inspires the Doctor’s wacky plan with the fake dragon. And it’s her imagination which feeds the illusion of the mighty beast into the Mire’s helmets. In many ways, it’s her story, not just because it’s named after her.

Both the Doctor and Clara are strangely drawn to her. The Doctor, as he explains, is haunted by a kind of future memory of her. Clara seems to have a crush on her (“Fight you for her,” she offers the Doctor at one stage). Both treat her as a potential protégé. In other circumstances, she might have been asked to board the TARDIS as a new companion.

Instead, she becomes the focus of the Doctor’s tempestuous grief, when she dies through a miscalculation in his plan. He breaks his own rules, lets her absorb some Mire technology, resurrects her and makes her immortal. But this tells us nothing new about the Doctor. That he’s a man of great power, that he’ll break his own rules when pushed, that he can take an ordinary person and turn them into a being of universal significance… all this we knew before The Girl Who Died.

But we didn’t know this vengeful god of a Doctor would turn up in the middle of what has been, up to that point, a jaunty historical comedy. After all, this is a story with Odin appearing in the sky straight from Monty Python and comic antics accompanied by the Benny Hill theme. It’s not where you expect to find a portentous immortal being created by an act of Doctorly rage.

That’s OK. This show’s frequently been about contrasting light and dark. And if it’s an uncomfortable mix in this episode, then The Time Meddler, Delta and the Bannermen and The Fires of Pompeii all have something to say about that. The only surprise is that a story-bending character like Ashildr, who will go on to be an ongoing force in the Doctor’s life, and who will eventually split our cozy couple apart, should emerge from such jolly hijinks as this.

Anyway, I best get on with my pitch to Big Finish. It’s called The Mighty Duxatrons. It stars David Bradley as the first Doctor. Emilio Estevez is going to co star. Underdogs as far as the eye can see.

LINK TO The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End: in flashback, we see the tenth Doctor and Donna again.

NEXT TIME: What a stupid fool you are! Let’s play The War Games.

 

 

Stop, look and Listen (2014)

listenSometimes, amongst all the noise and spectacle of a Doctor Who story, it’s the nuances that are most impressive. Watching Listen again, I was struck by one tiny but exquisite detail.

It’s on Clara’s (Jenna Coleman) second attempt at the date. She absent mindedly drops Danny’s (Samuel Anderson) real name, Rupert – a detail she’s not supposed to know and the catalyst for a new argument. At that point of the soundtrack, there’s the sound of a glass breaking. A nice, gently symbolic touch.

Listen‘s got lots of interesting little details like that in it, some adding extra meaning to the story, and some raising more questions than they answer. Let’s unearth a few more.

  • The story’s title is offered to us three times, in three different ways. In the very first scene, where the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) is meditating on top of the TARDIS (mind that lamp), his eyes snap open and he exclaims, “Listen!”. For no readily apparent reason. Then we’re in the TARDIS and the Doctor’s musing out loud, pre-credits and we see the word LISTEN scrawled mysteriously on a blackboard. Then the title card itself. We get it. The episode’s called Listen.
  • The restaurant where Clara meets Danny has a roundel patterned ceiling, making it feel a bit TARDISy.
  • Danny Pink is wearing a pink shirt. Now, this little detail feels wrong to me. I just don’t think he’s the sort of guy who would intentionally wear pink, because it would be like he’s trying to emphasise his surname. If anything, pink’s the one colour he wouldn’t wear.
  • When Clara arrives, Danny’s excuse for not having the date sooner is, “family stuff.” As we find out, this episode’s going to be all about Danny’s family life; his childhood and Orson Pink, who is strongly hinted at being Danny’s descendant. About which, more later.
  • During the date, Clara and Danny compare notes about a particularly frustrating female student. This is a clear reference to the show’s first episode, An Unearthly Child, during which schoolteachers Ian and Barbara are similarly flummoxed by their pupil Susan. Stay tuned, there are more links to the show’s very first story, and its first season, to come.
  • When she returns home from her date, Clara predicts she’ll get a phone call from Danny. And she does, while she’s plugged into the TARDIS telepathic circuits, causing the ship to veer off course, etc etc.
  • When the Doctor is explaining his theory about the dream that everybody has, Clara asks the Doctor if he has had the dream. He doesn’t say anything but we find out the answer is yes later in the episode, and Clara was the cause.
  • When the Doctor’s explaining how the telepathic circuits work, Clara says she doesn’t want to know when she’s going to die. This is the second time this season Clara has said that, the last time in Deep Breath. This could be just misdirection, making us think that Clara’s doomed when she’s not. But it feels like it was meant to lead somewhere, a hint at a story arc which never eventuated.
  • And speaking of which, there’s a major plot point about Clara being part of Orson’s family, the clear implication being that Orson’s a descendant of Clara and Danny’s. This isn’t how it turns out at all, and while it’s possible that Orson could be some the fruit of some other twisted branch of the Oswald and Pink family trees, that doesn’t feel like the intention. We know that Moffat was expecting Jenna Coleman to leave at the end of the series, and my bet is that Death in Heaven was going to end with her pregnant. But hey, we’ll probably never know.
  • While we’re on paths untaken, one of the things which Danny gets riled about is when people refer to him as a killer. In Into the Dalek, he gets called a ‘ladykiller’ and here, Clara jokes that when he says he could kill someone, that really means something. Perhaps this story arc was not meant to end with Clara procreating with Danny, but with him killing her?
  • There’s a running joke in this episode that Clara’s eyes are too large for her face. “Get them under control,” the Doctor says at one point. The makeup department has taken notes and assigned Clara nude lipstick. As Mrs. Spandrell, a trained makeup artist, pointed out to me, this draws the viewer’s attention away from her lips and accentuates her eyes. Clever, huh?
  • Orson’s spacesuit is from Sanctuary Base Six and thus a big continuity booboo. There’s no attempt to hide it either; there are a series of big close ups where its logo is front and centre. So a detail overlooked there, and here’s another. I can just about accept that the Doctor sends Orson into the restaurant to summon Clara. I can just about accept that he doesn’t say anything, just beckon mysteriously. But why on earth does his wear the helmet in the restaurant? Only, of course, to preserve the eventual reveal of his face being the same as Danny’s, one scene later.
  • So, Clara meets Danny when he’s a young boy and unintentionally rewrites his destiny. Later, she meets the Doctor as a young boy, and more intentionally, sets him on his life’s path. So Clara seems to have a thing about messing with men’s lives. She’s already a force for change in the Doctor’s life, running up and down his timeline. Though to be fair, she grows out of this habit. But next year, the Doctor picks it up and has a life changing impact on young Davros.
  • Back to 100,000 BC. Clara picks up a line of dialogue from that story, which is “fear makes companions of us all.” In fact, you could argue the whole story’s been built around this moment. Amongst the many shout outs to the first story, and remembering that Into the Dalek deliberately references the second, Listen picks up on the third. Inside the Spaceship. It’s the other story in the Who canon where the Doctor suspects the presence of an unseen menace, only for it to be revealed that it was all his own paranoia.

Listen is a story whose title asks us to observe and pay attention, as a schoolteacher scrawling on a chalkboard might instruct her students. For me, there’s just as much to observe in the small touches (some random, some carefully planned) than in the broad brushstrokes of this chamber piece of an episode. That could be the very definition of being a fan.

LINK TO Paradise Towers: lonely little boys playing soldiers.

NEXT TIME… oh, the end of the universe has come. Grab every companion you’ve ever had, it’s The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.

 

 

Six, Twelve and Into the Dalek (2014)

When John Nathan-Turner became producer of Doctor Who, he soon got to cast his first Doctor. He chose the youngest ever actor for the role, to create a likeable, appealing new Time Lord. Roughly 30 years later, showrunner Steven Moffat did the same.

JN-T later found himself re-casting the Doctor three years into the job, and he created a new version who was loud, brash and wore garish, multi-coloured clothing. The snider commentators suggested that JN-T had started fashioning the Doctor in his own image. What then to say about Steven Moffat, who when designing his second Doctor, produced a grumpy, dour Scotsman with a biting wit and a penchant for dark jackets?

Into the Dalek has got me thinking about the similarities between Doctors Six and Twelve, and not just that they may bear a passing resemblance to their creators. They are similar in many ways and both are extreme reactions to their charming, boyish predecessors. Both are deliberate attempts to make the Doctor less accessible, more challenging and to bring conflict to their relationships with their companions. If you ever wished the sixth Doctor’s era had better writing, better direction and a subtler costume for the leading man, you can more or less see the results in Peter Capaldi’s first season.

Into the Dalek features the twelfth Doctor at his least likeable; his charismatic nadir, from which he has been slowly but steadily climbing ever since. He lacks compassion, right from the story’s opening when he can’t bring himself to give a word’s comfort to Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) who has just watched her brother die. He is openly dismissive of those he deems unworthy of his attention; he can’t bring himself to remember Morgan’s (Michael Smiley) name, just calling him “a sort of boss one” and “Uncle Stupid”. And he leads crew member Ross (Ben Crompton), under terminal assault by Dalek antibodies, to believe he has a chance to live, before using his death as an escape plan. In The Day of the Doctor, only three stories ago, we were reminded that the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly. He’s certainly no coward, but we can no longer be sure about his absence of cruelty.

Old Sixie was a bit like this. He couldn’t bring himself to be compassionate when his companion Peri was forced to kill that Mutant in Revelation of the Daleks. In The Twin Dilemma, he was rude and dismissive towards intergalactic policeman Hugo Lang. But he also had, particularly in Season 22, a violent streak which P-Cap lacks, dishing out unpleasant deaths to adversaries in Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors. Six was more likely to be a participant in people’s deaths and Twelve is more likely to coldly use them to his advantage.

Unexpectedly, the sixth Doctor is the more outwardly sympathetic of the two. Despite his apparent lack of warmth, he’s more likely than the twelfth to pause to mourn a comrade’s death, or to express remorse. Capaldi’s Doctor is more likely to simply move on. Quite horribly so, in the case of Ross, who is liquidated by Dalek antibodies and deposited in the chamber the Doctor and friends escape to. “Top layer,” he baldly tells Journey, “if you want to say a few words.” It’s a step too far; too crass and unfeeling for any version of the Doctor. It’s the twelfth’s version of the infamous moment in Varos when two men fall into an acid bath and the sixth says, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you.”

In the pre-publicity for his first season, Capaldi called his Doctor “less user friendly” than before. But it’s more than that. In conception, the twelfth and sixth Doctors are deliberate attempts to highlight the difference between his alien point of view and our human one. It’s a dangerous game, one which risks alienating audiences. And there’s a line you can’t cross. The Doctor can be irascible and remote, but he can’t be nasty. Then we start to wonder if he’s worth hanging around with.

This is where the companions come in, and here, Twelve has a few advantages over Six. The sixth Doctor’s relationship with Peri was so volatile it bordered on destructive. She was the focus of much of his unpleasant character traits; supporting characters he was generally nice to. Peri bore the brunt of his bad side. He shouted at her, belittled her and of course, on one occasion, attacked her. There’s a moment in The Two Doctors where he bemoans her for not deducing that he’s been to Seville at least once, and when he turns her back, she mouths silently, “hate you!” There’s a terrible abusive slant on their relationship, demonstrated in those moments when the Doctor suddenly switches from disdain to affectionate concern for Peri, often taking her protectively under his arm. Unpleasant mixed signals. Just awful.

The twelfth Doctor though, has Clara (Jenna Coleman) to whom he made an impassioned plea at the end of the previous episode to stick with him. Despite her misgivings, she agreed, and hugged him, in a powerful symbol that she at heart, loves this version of the Doctor. Her job, as Rose Tyler’s was (and as Peri’s should have been) is to teach him how to be more human, as to help him mend his ways.

Clara’s faith in the Doctor is critical here. It’s the reassurance the audience needs that this Doctor is worth persevering with. It’s the faith that Peri never had in her Doctor, and why her determination to stick with the sixth Doctor seemed so perplexing. We can see why Clara sticks with the twelfth Doctor, because they make a great team. It must be this potential that Journey can see, and why she asks to join the TARDIS at story’s end; Lord knows it can’t be because she’s charmed and intrigued by the Doctor who’s been an utter jerk to her throughout.

Having an unlikeable Doctor does enable us to more clearly see his flaws. In this story, they even become the means to resolving the problem at hand. Rusty (voiced by Nicholas Briggs) flip flops between “Dalek with a conscience” and your everyday murderous sort. But when he mind merges with the Doctor, it’s his hatred of the Daleks, so palpable and raw, which encourages Rusty to turn against his comrades and save the day. Difficult to see that working with Davison or Smith. You need an darker Doctor to be able to unleash that darkness on his enemies.

****

JN-T eventually reconsidered. When Colin Baker came back for The Trial of a Time Lord, he was still loud and brash, but the nastiness was gone and he was nice to Peri. At least until Part Six when… but that’s another story. Point is, he mellowed, and he needed to.

A similar regeneration has happened to Capaldi. By The Return of Doctor Mysterio, he’s a figure of fun. Companion Nardole calls him “very silly” and he’s pulling cheeseburgers out of his coat and swinging comically outside windows. In Season 10, companion Bill clearly adores him – whole lecture theatres full of students adore him. He’s more dotty and less acerbic than before. He’s come a long way from the version of him we meet in Into the Dalek, and he needed to.

LINK TO Mummy on the Orient Express: same Doctor, same season, easy done.

NEXT TIME: What phantasmagoria is this? Why, it’s The Unquiet Dead.