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Doctorless, Dalekless, Mission to the Unknown (1965) and The Feast of Steven (1965)

Episode One

21st century Who has gotten us used to Doctor-lite adventures. But even now, we’ve only ever had one Doctor-entirely-absent adventure. It’s the one episode curio Mission to the Unknown.

Writer Terry Nation created the Daleks and, buoyed by three popular TV outings and a feature film in the cinemas, thought they could do without the Doctor and his friends. Given a surplus episode to play with, he grabbed the chance to let his metal babies glide out from behind the time traveller’s shadow. Mission to the Unknown is a first attempt to gauge how they’d hold an audience’s attention on their own.

The answer is… adequately. They’re as strangely compelling as ever, but not so the company they keep. Nation created a great monster, but never created great human characters. Here, three astronauts are stranded on a hostile planet, but they are standard, hammy heroes with not much to distinguish them, saying things like “I didn’t want to touch down on this lousy planet in the first place” and “you can bet your life our whole galaxy is in danger!” Yup, Daleks have better dialogue than these b-movie duds.

But to be honest, Daleks without the Doctor have never excited me. There’s something about their mechanical single-mindedness which seems to need the Doctor’s eccentricity and humour to bounce off. Partnering them against a James Bond wannabe as they are here (replacement lead Marc Cory even has a license to kill), or against a whole SSS of them as proposed in Nation’s would-be spin off, doesn’t have the same alchemy that Doctor Who has.

If the Daleks’ solo plan doesn’t quite come off, it’s partly because they’re not up to much. They spend much of the episode holding a big meeting with their allies from other galaxies. There’s a reason why middle-management strategic planning days don’t feature heavily in drama. Perhaps the Daleks and the Planetarians should have held a team building exercise instead? “Now everyone, we’re going to catch Malpha as he falls backwards… What do you mean you have no arms, big black Christmas tree?” When they start listing their invasion targets (Mars! Jupiter! The Moon colonies!), you can imagine the bullet points appearing onto whatever the Dalek equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation is. And you sense a sparse script being padded.

It all feels a bit inconsequential. But there is one event which promises some to have impact on the bigger story to come. It’s Marc Cory’s (Edward de Souza) attempts to get a message to Earth about the Daleks’ presence on the planet Kembel. He does this by recording it on cassette, which is quaint. But he’s killed before he can transmit the message, and Earth remains unwarned. But this is a prequel, right? So viewers back in 1965 could have reasonably expected that to pay off later.

Unfortunately, it proves to be a fizzer. In the fourth episode of The Daleks’ Master Plan, the Doctor and his allies play back the recovered tape and listen to Cory’s message. It tells them all about the Dalek threat… which they’ve already discovered two episodes ago. “I don’t know if it’s revelant”, the Doctor fluffs when he finds the tape.  No, it’s not Doctor. It’s entirely “irrevelant”. It only adds to the general sense that this Mission has been marking time.

But that’s not to suggest that a one episode story, standing alone from the rest of the series, was an experiment doomed to fail. In fact, the Doctor Who team quickly repeated it, with another episode separate from the stories around it.\. Tellingly, when putting this next odd-episode-out together, the production team left out the Daleks, not the Doctor. Surely an acceptance that Daleks are optional, but Doctor Who really can’t do without the Doctor.

Episode Two

It’s absurd to think of the merry Christmas celebration that is The Feast of Steven as anything other than a standalone story. Sure, it was produced as part of the twelve-part epic The Daleks’ Master Plan, but then Mission to the Unknown was produced as part of Galaxy 4 and we think of them separately. True, it has one scene that makes reference to Master Plan’s ongoing narrative, but that’s it. A few scant sentences in an otherwise entirely separate storyline. And yes, it’s broadcast in between episodes of Master Plan, but who cares? The story’s already been interrupted by four episodes of The Myth Makers.

And if we needed any more convincing, it was omitted from Master Plan for overseas sales. It’s not only seen by its makers as separate but also unnecessary. So meaningless outside its context as a throwaway piece of festive nonsense, to be of no possible interest to audiences outside the UK. Even stone cold Doctorless Mission to the Unknown could be sold overseas, but not this.

So where to start? Well, I suppose the first thing to note is that it’s a comedy (no, really) and more broadly comic than any other Doctor Who story. Even stories like The Romans or City of Death which are comic in tone, have dramatic storylines at their core. The Feast of Steven has no dramatic intent at all. It’s made up of two comic set pieces designed to keep a Christmas Day audience amused.

The first set piece involves some antics at a Liverpool police station. As conceived, this was going to be a crossover episode between with popular police drama Z Cars. Now, I’ve never seen an episode of Z Cars, but quite why a police drama was seen as good fodder for a Doctor Who crossover eludes me (But hey, Dimensions in Time makes anything seem possible). Could the seventh Doctor and Ace have shared a cracker with the cast of The Bill? Could the thirteenth Doctor drop in for Christmas lunch in Broadchurch? (That would be confusing.)

This half of the episode is all very arch and self aware. Steven (Peter Purves) conveniently finds a police uniform and oddly enough it comes with a Liverpudlian accent. As an astronaut from the 25th century it seems unlikely he’d be able to adopt such an accent, but when questioned about it by the Doctor, he says he did so because everyone else was speaking that way. The Doctor himself points out that one of the Policemen is played by an actor who appeared in The Crusade. And although the significance of the man and his troublesome greenhouse escapes me, I’d bet it’s some comment on the regular dramatic fodder on Z Cars.

Never before had the series so knowingly winked at its audience as if to say, you’re watching a piece of television. We both know it, so let’s have some fun. That alone makes it weird enough.

But then the second half changes tack. There’s no self-referential game playing here. Just a load of old slapstick on the film sets of two early Hollywood epics. It’s pure farce, and judging by the cacophonous soundtrack, utterly chaotic too. Unlike the first half which invites its audience to exercise its knowledge of contemporary TV, this is asking them to relive happy hours spent at the cinema, watching quota quickies and screwball comedies (some of which would have starred William Hartnell). Its characters are cliches, its set ups predictable, but that is, I suspect, part of the fun. But blimey – it sounds absolutely barking.

Finally, and infamously, there’s the breaking of the fourth wall when the episode ends with the Doctor wishing the audience a “happy Christmas to all of you at home”. It’s a moment unique in Doctor Who, so bizarre as to be almost impossible to decode. But it is surely the clearest signal that the production team is saying, ignore the last 25 minutes. It was just a bit of fun. We won’t even bother telerecording it, that’s how disposable it is. It’s the exclamation mark at the end of an extended joke between friends. And the second episode in short order which has played fast and loose with the core elements of Doctor Who.

LINK to Tooth and ClawBoth Mission and Tooth and Claw feature monsters that can transform you into said monster, with a scratch.

NEXT TIME… Hey nonny nonny, it’s The Shakespeare Code

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Icons, iconoclasm and Victory of the Daleks (2010)

victory

When Steven Moffat was first spruiking Victory of the Daleks, he was confident of a hit. Writing in DWM before it aired, he called it the “Mark Gatiss classic”, predicting that’s how everyone would describe it in future. You can see how he would have come to this conclusion from looking at this story’s component elements: Daleks – old and new, the London blitz, Churchill, spitfires in space. A sure fire winner.

As it turns out, the reception to this episode was much harsher. It came bottom, not top, of DWM’s season poll. There are lots of reasons why, covered in lots of easily located reviews, if you’re looking for a catalogue of what’s wrong with this story. I’m more interested in what happens when you mess around with the show’s iconography.

By which I mean, the big, series-defining elements which are strongly identified with the program – and by which the program is in turn identified. What the list of the show’s icons contains is arguable, but I’d say it consists of: the Doctor, the TARDIS, the Daleks and the theme music. I think those are the elements that are closest to the hearts of most viewers. Changes to these elements are contentious because they are loved so dearly by so many. Muck around with these elements and you muck around what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who.

(To illustrate further, here are some elements I don’t think make that list of icons: regeneration, companions, Time Lords, monsters other than Daleks. These are important – sometimes crucial – ingredients in the show, but you can play around with these. Alter how they appear and the role they play, discard them all together or completely redesign them. Viewers and fans accept changes to these components more readily than to those icons.)

Victory of the Daleks dares to tinker with one of those icons, when it wheels out its new paradigm Daleks, in (nearly) all the colours of a Trivial Pursuit board. The redesign of the Daleks, as bulkier, more garish but less elegant versions, was one of the most widely criticised missteps of 21st century Who. Had it been attempted in the show’s maiden season in 2005, it could have scuppered the series’ return.

The surprising thing about it is they didn’t even change that much. They followed what had gone before, copying the size and brashness of the 1960s Dalek films in an act of homage. But somehow between the oddly concertinaed neck and the humpy back, they misplaced the essence of that classic Cusick design.

It was a misstep made with staggering confidence. The multicoloured Daleks glide onto screen with triumphant arrogance, like new model Audis at an automotive fair. More tellingly, they demolish the classically formed Ironside Daleks, literally and symbolically, as if to say, “we won’t be needing these old things anymore!” Millions of viewers disagreed, perhaps sensing that an unnecessary change was being foisted upon them in attempt to reinvigorate toy sales. Even though their title, the “New Dalek Paradigm”, doesn’t sound like it would make youngsters race to the cash register. It sounds more like the subject of a textbook.

It’s not like the Daleks hadn’t been redesigned before. But no-one had ever deviated this far from Ray Cusick’s original template. It was a swift lesson in the risks of messing with one of the show’s icons. You can only go so far before you lose the essence of what people loved about them in the first place. Hearing the audience’s critique (how could they not?), the production team shifted these new paradigm Daleks into the background in future stories.

What of our other untouchable icons? The theme music has had its ups and downs, but is essentially still the dum-de-dum-ooo-ee-ooo fanfare we’ve all grown up with. An alternative scarcely bears thinking about. Similarly, the TARDIS, both inside and out, has been through many iterations, but none has looked utterly different from what has gone before. It’s hard to imagine a version of the show where the spaceship’s exterior looks like, I don’t know, a Tesla recharging station and the interior like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. See, you’re shuddering already, aren’t you? Even though the Moff likes to throw in the occasional jibe at fans who worry about the size of the Ship’s windows, he never dared make it anything other than a Police Box.

Which leaves us with the Doctor. He isn’t a design element like the TARDIS or a technical element like the theme music, but he still comes with a basic template to follow. You know it by heart: never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in. Sometimes though, he has, in the eyes of some, veered too far away from his original conception, such as when Colin Baker and Peter Capaldi presented harsher, less outwardly compassionate versions of our hero. So the Doctor’s not infinitely flexible; you can’t perform on him the character equivalent of painting him blue and giving him an awkwardly shaped hump.

So it’s interesting to watch the most recent episode, Twice Upon a Time, wade into these murky waters. It did so by taking liberties with the first Doctor, by giving him a line in sexist remarks, which, no matter how redolent of the original series they were, were not characteristic of the Doctor himself. Those crass clangers may have added a few laughs to the episode, but it showed an unusually cavalier attitude by the production team to bringing back an element from the show’s past. It’s hard to imagine them getting away with such retconning had they brought the fourth Doctor back, or the tenth.

It would have been tempting to think that the first Doctor was such a relic of the past that no one would mind a little character revisioning in the name of a jolly Christmas episode. But judging from the widespread online criticism of this move, I think they underestimated people’s affection for the first Doctor, much as Victory of the Daleks underestimated people’s affection for the original Dalek design. In a sense, having the first Doctor smirk about women being made of glass is the equivalent of the paradigm Daleks blowing up their previous well liked incarnations. In their negative reaction to both these moves, I think fans of the series are saying, “these are the icons you can’t mess with. Treat them with respect.”

Of course, Twice Upon a Time makes one other, far more significant, alteration to the Doctor and that’s to make him a woman. To some, this will be the destruction of one of the show’s untouchable elements. For me, it doesn’t feel like the destruction of anything, just a logical progression for the show; a new shade of blue on the Police Box, rather than changing it into a recycling station. Even so, you make these changes carefully and with respect for the past… Otherwise, it seems you’re doomed to retreat from the bold ideas, like a new paradigm Dalek gliding to the back of shot, hoping to stay unnoticed.

One last thing to note about the bold, iconoclastic but unpopular Victory of the Daleks: Master Spandrell loves it. Has for about 2 years now. Because it’s an action packed, exciting and – dare I say it – colourful adventure. If it has a resurgence in popularity in future years because the children who loved it have all grown up, it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened. They may even refer to it as “the Gatiss classic.” The Moff may yet be proven right.

LINK TO The Pilot: both have Daleks in them. Classic, old paradigm Daleks.

NEXT TIME… it’s death by Scotland in The Eaters of Light.

Bill, agency and The Pilot (2017)

pilot 

It’s odd, but we just don’t get that many “current Doctor meets new Companion” episodes in 21st Century Doctor Who. We get episodes where the whole cast is new, like Rose and The Eleventh Hour (and I presume, Jodie Whittaker’s debut ep). And we get staggered entries like Donna’s, Rory’s and Clara’s. But The Pilot is the first time since Smith and Jones that we have a straightforward introduction for a new companion. Twice in ten years, which seems unusual compared to the original series where such opening nights happened on a regular basis.

It’s a Doctor Who subgenre which stretches back to 1965’s The Rescue. It seems strange to say it, but it’s that ancient two-parter which The Pilot reminds me of most. Perhaps it’s just that The Rescue sets the template for new companion stories so comprehensively that there’s no reason to deviate too far from it. Doctor meets girl (well, they’re usually girls), both have gaps in their lives the other can fill, there’s an adventure to be had, “it’s bigger on the inside” and off they go.

The companion in question is Bill, played with verve by Pearl Mackie. Like Vicki in The Rescue, her parents are long dead and she’s desperately lonely, even with her substitute parent nearby. Like Vicki, when the adventure engulfs her, the protagonist is someone close to her; then it was Vicki’s fellow castaway Bennett, here’s it’s Bill’s crush Heather (Stephanie Hyam). And like Vicki, she quickly strikes up an unlikely friendship with a curmudgeonly, old Doctor (Peter Capaldi ) who will take her under his wing and become a tutor in the ways of the universe for her. (Although neither of them see the need to investigate the spaceship which has been landing surreptitiously in St. Luke’s university, only its sentient oil leak. Marks deducted for missing the big picture!)

Who Bill is not, is Clara. This shouldn’t be surprising; lots of companions are conceived in reaction to the one they replace. But here, for some reason, a complete change felt needed. Clara was complicated – from the start of her tour of TARDIS duty where she was splintered across the Doctor’s own history to the end, where she was a failed would-be Doctor, dead but not dead, etc etc. Bill is much simpler: she’s a bright, friendly but quietly melancholy girl, who’s a bit of an oddball. The Doctor sees in her unmet potential and that’s enough to reignite his passion for travelling the universe.

The actors who play them are also intrinsically different. Jenna Coleman came from the world of TV soaps, with an air of magazine glamour about her. Pearl Mackie came to the show from theatre, specifically the presentation of new plays. Doctor Who is her first major TV gig, so she’s slightly less polished and less perfectly formed than Coleman was for TV stardom. But this background is perfect for Bill, who is an edgier and less self-confident character than Clara. And Bill seems like a character more grounded in the real world than Clara, and for whatever reason, this seems to suit Capaldi’s grizzled teacher of a Doctor; Bill needs and wants to be taught, whereas Clara seemed to already know it all.

There are other companion echoes as well. With her badged jacket and her eagerness to be the Doctor’s student, she’s reminiscent of Ace. Like Jo Grant, she’s cheeky and perky and prone to making mistakes. Of course, there’s a deliberate visual reference to Susan. Plus she’s named after Billie Piper, who brought that other working class, diamond in the rough companion Rose to screen. She’s an amalgam of many who have gone before… just not Clara.

(On the other hand, she does end up gaining an immortal girlfriend and running away with her to see the universe, so she does eventually end up like Clara. I like to think the four of them get together at bars and make fun of the old grey hair and eyebrows:

BILL: Get this. Once he took me to a nautically themed cafe in Cardiff and tried to tell me it was Australia!

CLARA: That’s nothing. He once tried to convince me that the moon was an egg. The Moon!)

As has been noted before around these parts, fandom’s feelings about Clara are mixed, but Bill, it seems, was an instant hit. Clearly there’s something about Bill which a significant group of fans prefer to Clara, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. Certainly Bill seems to be a humbler, more down-to-earth character than Clara and I have a sneaking suspicion that some thought her constant attempts to be or to teach the Doctor made her a bit too big for her boots.

It’s not a sentiment I share, but I wonder if Bill is in part a reaction to Clara’s Doctorly ambitions? And that leads me to this worrying observation: are we actually more comfortable with a companion who is subordinate to the Doctor? I would argue that as breezy and charming as Bill is, she is a far more passive character than Clara. Whereas Clara would (in general) take the initiative in her stories, often instigating her own plot lines, Bill is much more likely to follow the Doctor’s lead, or to wait for him to act before she will. Sure, this is a symptom of her newness to the Doctor’s world and also indicative of the fact that Nardole (Matt Lucas) is also around to share the action with.

Let me offer a few examples. What positive, independent action does Bill take in Smile, other than to find the database of exposition? What at all in Oxygen? Or in Knock Knock? It’s not until The Pyramid at the End of the World that she impacts a plot in any meaningful way, through her appeal to the Monks to cure the Doctor, but this is made as a last resort. She is more integral in The Lie of the Land, but in World Enough and Time, she’s a victim the whole way through – things happen to her, she doesn’t make things happen. I can’t help but think that if Clara had been the companion in Thin Ice, she, not the Doctor, would have punched that racist. How much more would it have meant if Bill had slugged that sucker?

What I’m suggesting is that in Clara we had someone who challenged the Doctor and in Bill we have someone who complements him. And I think (judging from what I read on social media… admittedly, never a great research technique) we seem to prefer the latter. Generalisation’s a curse, and there’s always the possibility that Bill is simply a more likable character than Clara to factor in. But if we do prefer the old fashioned, patriarchal notion of the Doctor as a learned teacher and the companion as his devoted student, we might as well be watching The Rescue.

LINK TO: The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People. People made out of goop.

NEXT TIME… would you care for some tea? Broadsword to Danny Boy, it’s time for the Victory of the Daleks.

 

Zeg, Tarrant and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (2010)

pando opens 2

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg! We had best get on with organising this alliance of alien races for our latest campaign against the Doctor.

ZEG: Oh, bugger it! How did we get lumbered with this, Dalek Tarrant? I’ve already been doing overtime on the redesign of our casings!

TARRANT: Yes, and look how well that went down, Zeg.

ZEG: It was going fine till they made me add that hump on the back.

TARRANT: Anyway… what we need is an alliance of alien badasses that will scare the etheric beam locators off anyone who dares to question the might of the Daleks!

ZEG: Don’t we already have an alliance, lying about the place somewhere?

TARRANT: We used to have one, but it was pissweak. Remember? There was that spiny faced guy…

ZEG: Oh that’s right. And the seaweed in a big robe.

TARRANT: That big black Christmas tree…

ZEG: And that guy covered in half globes! He looked ridiculous!

TARRANT: So none of those numpties get invited again.

ZEG: All right, who do you want for this lot then?

TARRANT: Well, the Nestene Consciousness, I suppose, ‘cos we’re going to need duplicates.

ZEG: Wait a minute, don’t we make duplicates?

TARRANT: Yes, though lately ours have tended to have eye stalks erupt from their foreheads at inappropriate moments.

ZEG: Fair enough, it’s a terrible giveaway. Who else have you got?

TARRANT: Um, the Cybermen?

ZEG: Ooh, that’s going to be totes awks.

TARRANT: Why do you say that, Dalek Zeg?

ZEG: A few years back they proposed an alliance to us. And we exterminated their arses.

TARRANT: They won’t care.

ZEG: They might!

TARRANT: No, they literally won’t care. They can’t, remember? That’s their whole thing.

ZEG: OK, who else you got?

TARRANT: The Sontarans?

ZEG: Ugh. I don’t get those fuckers. They’re supposed to completely obsessed with that “interminable war with the Rutans” TM. But then they’re always getting involved in these other hijinks. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll jump at the idea. Anything to avoid actually prosecuting that war they’re meant to be a part of.

TARRANT: Silurians?

ZEG: Those lizard things? That’s going to be pain. We’re going to have to wake them up. Have you got a big drill or a cyclotron or something? Then we’ll have to explain the whole thing to them… They’ll want to do their whole, “kill all the apes and reclaim our planet” routine… On the other hand, they’re on their home planet, so we won’t need to pay their per diems.

TARRANT: Judoon?

ZEG: Didn’t you already say them?

TARRANT: No, I said Sontarans.

ZEG: What’s the difference?

TARRANT: Not a great deal. But the Judoon have better boots.

ZEG: Oh they’re the police ones, aren’t they? I’m not sure they’re going to want to be in a kind of super group of villains.

TARRANT: Sycorax?

ZEG: Those guys in the big flying rock? Jeez, if you want. None of that voodoo bullshit though. Just let ‘em stand at the back and keep quiet.

TARRANT: The Hoix?

ZEG: The who?

TARRANT: The Weevils?

ZEG: You’re just making shit up now.

TARRANT: Terileptils, Zygons, Chelonians, Drahvins…

ZEG: The Drahvins? Oh come on, I draw the fucking line. A bunch of skinny chicks with elaborate eye make up? Fat lot of use they’ll be. Are they bringing their special magnetic net?

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg, I sense you are not approaching this task constructively.

ZEG: Give me a fucking break, Tarrant. The bloody Drahvins? What a bunch of b-listers. It’ll be the freaking Slitheen next.

TARRANT: Well, actually…

ZEG: Seriously? Why not call the Bandrils? I hear they’ve been free since about 1985. What about the Vardans? I bet we can get the Krotons for equity minimum. Ooh, no I’ve got it… the Monoids! With their cattle prods of doom!

TARRANT: If this is the sort of attitude you brought to the redesign of our casings Zeg, I can see how we ended up looking like giant M&Ms.

ZEG: What’s all this in aid of anyway?

TARRANT: Well, it appears that the Doctor is going to bring about the end of the Universe.

ZEG: Hey, that’s our job!

TARRANT: I know, right? So we’ve got to prevent him from being able to do it.

ZEG: How so?

TARRANT: We’ll lock him in a big box.

ZEG: Genius. Where is this box?

TARRANT: Stonehenge.

ZEG: Um, why?

TARRANT: Well, a scenario has been constructed from the memories of the Doctor’s companion.

ZEG: And she once went to Stonehenge?

TARRANT: No, she liked Roman occupied Britain when she was a kid, and it’s kind of close by. Plus, she likes the box thing, so there’s that as well.

ZEG: But wait a minute, we think this will ensure the Doctor shows up?

TARRANT: It’s a trap the Doctor cannot resist!

ZEG: It just sounds a bit complicated, Tarrant. If we want the Doctor to show up, why don’t we just do something evil? He’s turned up every other time we’ve done that. Without bloody fail!

TARRANT: Yeah, it would be simpler but we just don’t have anything on the drawing board that’s ready to go.

ZEG: OK, so what’s the plan once the Doctor is inevitably drawn to this devious trap?

TARRANT: Well, we shove him in the box.

ZEG: And then?

TARRANT: That’s it.

ZEG: Right. It suddenly goes from hugely complicated to sort of alarmingly simple. And what do all the other alliance members do?

TARRANT: Well the Nestene duplicates…

ZEG: Which we could at a pinch supply ourselves….

TARRANT: Well, they’ll actually put him in the box. Bit hard with the old plungers, y’see.

ZEG: OK, and everyone else?

TARRANT: They just sort of turn up for a gloat.

ZEG: Right. Tarrant, you remember the last time we had an alliance? Remember what our alliance members did then?

TARRANT: Um yeah. They stood around a big desk for a bit. Then they went to a conference and clapped idiosyncratically. Then some of them betrayed us and had to be exterminated. And then we got bored of them and locked them all up.

ZEG: And none of them were strictly speaking necessary either were they?

TARRANT: Not critically, no.

ZEG: Tarrant, this is the dumbest thing we have ever done.

TARRANT: Says the Dalek who painted us the united colours of Benetton.

ZEG: Fair enough. Shall we just exterminate each other now?

TARRANT: Agreed.

*Ka-shoom! Screen goes negative*

LINK TO The Claws of AxosPresumably the Axons are in this formidable bunch of alien badasses somewhere. (With thanks to Will Brooks

NEXT TIME: Mercy, just look at this place. We unearth The Tomb of the Cybermen.

 

Party time, playthings and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (2008)

stolenearth

If you’re going to throw a party, you might as well invite all your friends. That’s what it feels like watching Russell T Davies’ Series Four finale, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Multiple doctors, many companions, UNIT, Torchwood, the Daleks and Davros (Julian Bleach). Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister (you know who she is). K flippin’ 9.

It’s odd to precede this with Listen, so self contained and inward looking. This is the other end of the Who-ish spectrum. Listen is the work of a writer self-imposing restrictions on himself, in order to keep himself game fit. It’s about trying to find out what makes the Doctor tick. The Stolen Earth etc. is about bold, grandstanding, attention grabbing TV. It’s about making the biggest, showiest version of the show, while Listen the quietest, most enigmatic version.

Oddly enough though, both are about rewarding fans. The Stolen Earth overtly, because it brings back favourite characters, ties up loose ends to various plot points and even has a mid story regeneration. Listen is for fans too, but more subtly. It delves into the Doctor’s past, plays with his psyche and offers a glimpse into his childhood. One is Longleat, the other Lungbarrow.

I don’t really know what it was about Doctor Who in 2014 which required a Listen. But we know why Doctor Who in 2008 needed The Stolen Earth. It’s because after three years of successively bigger and grander series finales, Series Four’s closer had no choice but to top them all. The only option was to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. And that’s what we got: garish, sometimes absurd, but never quiet, Doctor Who.

*****

The Stolen Earth has an unusual structure. It starts where most Parts Ones end, with a full on invasion. There’s no time wasted in set up. We’re straight into it. This episode has a lot to get through, so there’s no time to waste.

Its main task is to get all the Doctor’s companions in place. It’s funny to see them all turn up once, like a reunion episode, but one made before any of the regulars have left. Actually, it’s a cross over show, combining the worlds of Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures, addressing that core audience of die hards who watch all three shows. The result is an episode with no supporting cast, just regulars. But there are so many of the buggers! The majority of the episode is spent introducing them all and putting them in touch with each other. It’s RTD at his most dextrous, but there’s little time to give any of them any meaningful character development.

They’re all trying to contact the Doctor (David Tennant, working double time), giving the impression that although they can handle Slitheen, Sontarans and gaseous alien nymphomaniacs when the real bad guys come flying in, they need to call in reinforcements. They eventually manage it, through some advanced technobabble, and the Doctor heads to Earth to find them all. Once there, time starts to run out and narrative convenience steps in. Rose (Billie Piper) and Jack (John Barrowman) suddenly manage to teleport directly to the Doctor with consummate ease and no data as to his whereabouts. But there’s no time to waste. We’ve got a regeneration to get to.

And it’s a brilliant one too – the Doctor shot down by a Dalek while racing to reunite with Rose. Then a cliffhanger with a regeneration in progress. Davies writes it precisely. He doesn’t end the episode without showing the Doctor regenerating, the full orange volcano, his handsome face engulfed. This is actually happening. It’s new Doctor time when you least expected it.

Bring in all the Daleks and companions you want. That regeneration’s the standout moment in the show. It’s the bit baby fans will be reminiscing about for years; the popping of a champagne cork at the end of a raucous shindig of an episode.

*****

Of course, if you’re going to get all your toys out of the box, you have to put them away neatly afterward. Davros and the Daleks? You can just blow them up. The Earth can be towed back home by the TARDIS, accompanied by a triumphant anthem. Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Jack can go back to their respective series. Martha (Freema Agyeman) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) tag along with Jack (though apparently they slip away and get unfeasibly married instead). The others prove more difficult propositions.

Donna becomes a super being, bathed in golden light, not so different from what happened to Rose. For a brief amount of time, she becomes a Donna Doctor hybrid, with his brains but retaining her sass. It’s a beguiling combination, a sort of streetwise Romana. A series of this Doctor/Companion combo would have been fun. But instead, she gets her memory wiped and sent back home to Mum. It’s presented as a death, the death of the woman Donna had become. Call me heartless, but it’s never struck me as the kick in the emotional guts it is sometimes presented as. It’s always been the disingenuous pay off of the ‘a companion’s gonna die’ gimmick, hinted at throughout the story. Again, not so different from what happened to Rose.

Rose, though, should by rights get to live happily ever after with the love of her life, brown suit Doctor. Instead, she gets dropped off on that bleak ol’ beach with blue suit Doctor, with the one heart and the regular aging. It’s a bittersweet ending, being left with a Doctor who will love her, but one who’ll always be a photocopy of the original. By any rational measure, she’s better off with this ersatz version, but then as the Doctor himself once said, love was never known for its rationality.

But I’ve got bad news for Miss Tyler. It’s never going to last. Sure this Doctor’s human, but she seems to have forgotten that he’s also half Donna. That’s gonna be a shock when she wakes up one morning and it’s all new flavour pringle, Brangelina and text me, text me. Oi, Earth girl! This party’s left one hell of a hangover.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: When the Daleks attack UNIT’s New York base, someone shouts, “Give me a Sit Rep right now!”. The DVD’s subtitles say, “Give me a cigarette right now!” Which is understandable in the circumstances.

LINK TO Listen: Peter Bennett, production manager on this story, produced that one.

 

NEXT TIME…: I am very, very cross with you! We’re off to meet The Girl Who Died.

Tourism, divorce and Asylum of the Daleks (2012)

In Australia, we have “big things”. These are oversized monuments which serve as cut price tourist traps for towns all around the country. They’re usually giant sculptures or buildings retrofitted into the shape of something indicative of the local area. Often, but not always, produce related. The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour. The Big Merino Ram at Goulburn. The Big Boxing Crocodile in Darwin. They are kitsch colossuses and squirm-worthy expressions of Australian culture. (Bemused non-Australians can consult the full list of Big Things for further clarification. You have been warned.)

So imagine my delight when Asylum of the Daleks opens and shows that Skaro, has its very own big thing, the Big Dalek. Like many Big Things, there are hardly any visitors inside. Just the Doctor (a cagey Matt Smith) and the suspiciously named Darla (Anamaria Marinca) and like most Big Thing attendees, they look tremendously underwhelmed. If only they were eating terrible fast food and browsing half heartedly through overpriced souvenirs, the grim picture would be complete.

The Doctor’s visit to the Big Dalek, highlights one of showrunner Steven Moffat’s recurring motifs about the Daleks – an obsession with what’s inside them. This opening scene’s just a precursor to the episode’s major revelation that crash survivor Oswin (Jenna Louise Coleman) is in fact the cognitive remnants of a converted human, living inside a Dalek. The recently randomed Into the Dalek takes a more literal trip to the interior, but there’s also The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar which, for the third time, put Jenna inside a Dalek. Consider also Moffat’s interior adventures inside robots (Let’s Kill Hitler), the TARDIS (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) and space whales (The Beast Below) and we can see that he’s really into internalising.

Why, I don’t know. But in the case of the Daleks, it does highlight for the viewer they are vehicles, not robots. There are Kaled mutants, and sometimes converted people, inside them. There’s also a classic Moffat inversion on display in this Asylum too. Because as well as people inside Daleks, there are Daleks hiding inside people. Duplicate humans and reanimated corpses sprout eyestalks from their forehead and gunsticks from their palms. Moffat’s Daleks are monsters which both encase you and fester inside you.

Worse than that, they infect you. The Dalek nanocloud is an all pervading smog of tiny robots. They get inside you (that again) and turn you into a Dalek from the inside out. The physical changes come after the mental ones. The mental battle for control is enough to force Oswin to create an elaborate fantasy about being under siege from the Daleks, in order to protect her own identity. We see the start of this process effecting Amy (Karen Gillan) and in a beautifully shot sequence, we see her slipping into madness, and hallucinating that she’s in a ballroom full of dancers, when in fact, she’s in a pit packed with deranged Daleks. Around her, ballerinas pirouette. Add a dancing dwarf and we’re almost at Twin Peaks.

The ballerina, also glimpsed in Oswin’s hideout, is an important symbol here. Dalek creator Terry Nation claimed inspiration for his creatures from the Russian ballet dancers in enormous skirts, gliding across stage. We’re prompted to recall the Daleks’ origins, because this is a story steeped in their history. There are other hints scattered about – Oswin carries an egg whisk about, the better to prepare her soufflés with. Like a young Doctor Who fan creating his own Dalek army out of a miscellany of toys from throughout the show’s history, so Moffat populates Asylum with Daleks of all different colours and designs. Loads of old Dalek stories get shoutouts. This is about mashing up the show’s past and present, as well as discovering whether Daleks are bigger on the inside.

But I digress. I reckon the idea of a Big Dalek has legs, although it wouldn’t actually have legs. It could tower over Cardiff Bay (“Look at the state of it,” could become this century’s “Bye Bye Duggan!”) Exit would be, of course, via the gift shop and if it needs fresh merchandise to sell to hapless visitors, Asylum again shows us the way. Plastic rotating ballerinas. Egg whisks. Eye stalk headbands. And in the cafe, soufflé for all.

*****

But now I must bring up the difficult topic of divorce. Specifically, the Ponds’.

I suppose that one of the problems about having a married couple on any TV program is that marital bliss can’t last forever. Whether it’s likely or not, it’s not very dramatically satisfying. Trouble must eventually set in. Or in the case of the Ponds, suddenly set in.

Asylum implies that it has been some time since Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have seen the Doctor, and since then, their relationship has broken down to the point where divorce is the only option. Only a quick montage in the online extra Pond Life would have indicated to dedicated viewers that anything was wrong with our otherwise loved up comPondians.

Problem is, this relationship breakdown feels inherently artificial, engineered to add a sub plot to this otherwise Daleky tale. The antidote to the nanocloud turning you into a human with Dalek appendages, is love, apparently. So when Amy is threatened with Dalekisation, getting her to reignite her love for Rory is crucial to saving her life.

Problem is, I never really believed they fell out of love. The reason proffered for the break up is that Amy staged a pre-emptive eviction of Rory because he wanted kids she couldn’t biologically produce. This just doesn’t seem like something which would break them up. Surely, the Amy and Rory we know would talk it through. Rory, you’d think, would support Amy, not reject her. Besides, it’s not like the only way to have kids is the old fashioned way. My impression is that couples fray when one partner doesn’t want kids, not when one can’t have kids.

Maybe the problem is we didn’t see Amy and Rory gradually slide into marital discord. We only saw them being perfectly happy together, then divorced, then perfectly happy again. And while it’s interesting to see Doctor Who try its hand at interpersonal drama, the Ponds’ separation seems inherently false. It’s like the Ponds’ grief over losing their baby daughter; it’s just too big a problem to fit into the show’s format, where the adventures must roll inevitably along, pausing not to dwell on emotional distress.

“It’s not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow tie. Don’t give me those big wet eyes, Raggedy Man,” says Amy.  “It’s life. Just life.” Except it’s not, is it? Because if it was, it would be long and protracted and painful, and it wouldn’t necessarily end cleanly and happily in time for the next episode. And the ultimate irony? The Doctor does actually fix it, with a twiddle of his bow tie. Pah.

But… having not so long ago catalogued Doctor Who‘s post-coital scenes, I was delighted to spot a pre-coital one. When the repaired Ponds get dropped off at home at story’s end, Amy shoots Rory a loaded look and heads into a house. Rory’s clearly got the message and has the very pleased look of a man whose drought has broken. Ah, marriage.

RANDOM QUESTION: Why does the Doctor tell Amy that they need to make the Daleks remember her? I must be missing something. Answers in the comments, please.

LINK TO Knock Knock: humans turning into monsters.

NEXT TIME: let’s end on a cliffhanger. It’s one of the stories I’ve referred to above.

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.