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Subversion, reassertion and Midnight (2008)

midnight

In a show as long running as Doctor Who, it’s inevitable you’re going to get episodes which are designed to challenge the series’ norms. Having it be the “monster of the week” every episode’s not creatively satisfying for production team or audience.

Hence, Midnight is one of those episodes which subverts everything the show usually does. In it, the Doctor (David Tennant) is stripped of his hero status, humiliated and helpless, his standard tricks made useless. The standard Doctor Who monster is replaced by an invisible, unknowable force; its origins and motives never explained. And human beings, so often championed in 21st century Who as being amazing, inspirational creatures capable of so much, are seen here to quickly descend into vindictive self-preservation. In doing so, they disprove everything the Doctor has ever said about their brilliance and potential.

Midnight sets out to be the antidote to the show’s usual optimism about humanity, but that determination to find the heroic in the everyday proves a hard mold to break. Among its cast of bickering humans, it zeros in on one who goes on a character arc which describes 21st Doctor Who’s most prominent theme: that the Doctor can inspire ordinary human beings to acts of great heroism. It does this by tracing that character’s Orpheus-like journey into the underworld of selfishness and fear, and subsequent emergence by using Doctor-like logic and courage to save the day.

That character is the Hostess (Rakie Ayola). Forgive me for retelling the plot at you for a bit, but I think what’s interesting is how writer Russell T Davies uses her as a structural component of the script. It’s the Hostess who pushes the plot along, ramps up the tension in specific steps and then does an about turn which saves the day. Whoever said plot and character are the same thing would find an instructive example in Midnight.

At the story’s start, the Hostess seems like a purely functional character. She’s there to welcome passengers aboard this pleasure trip and her demeanour tells us it’s not a job she enjoys. When the Doctor tries to engage her in cheery conversation, she looks at him with weary politeness, just wanting to get on with her job. But crucially, she notices the distinctiveness of his turn of phrase, that jaunty “allons-y”.

The other passengers are utterly ordinary people. A holidaying family, a professor (of Which University) and his protégé.  When their fellow passenger, the solitary Sky Sylvestry (Leslie Sharp) becomes possessed by the invisible creature, they act not like the courageous, noble humans of so many other Davies stories, but with fear and suspicion. The Doctor corrals them and the Hostess to the back of the ship and tries to convince them to simply keep their distance from Sky until the rescue ship arrives. As ingenious plans go, its practical, but not up to his usual standard.

Unfortunately, he can’t restrain the humans’ tendency to lash out. Davies ramps up the stakes in a series of reveals from the humans, each one punctuated by a dramatic sting in Murray Gold’s instrumental music. And the Hostess plays the pivotal role of influencer. She’s always the one to say what everyone else is thinking.

First, the Hostess says, “We should throw her out.” Cue sting!

It’s the first admission that at least one of them is thinking of a murderous pre-emptive strike on Sky. The Doctor just about manages to hose that one down, helped by the general belief that it’s not technically possible.

But then Dee Dee (Ayesha Antoine) says, “Yes we can,” and explains that a human jettison is possible, if done within 6 seconds. Sting!

And although Dee Dee makes the suggestion, it’s the Hostess who provides the practical method. “I wouldn’t risk the cabin door twice, but we’ve got that one,” she says, pointing out an alternative. “All we need to do is grab hold of her and throw her out.” The ethically questionable action which had been ruled out as impossible, is now feasible. The Doctor then calms debate down again, this time on the grounds of common humanity, asking if any one of them are prepared to become killers.

Again, the Hostess prompts the next development in this argument, saying “I’d do it.” Sting!

The cat is out of the bag again as the others admit that in order to save their own lives, they are prepared to commit murder. The Hostess falls back on her job description as justification, “It’s my job to see that this vessel is safe,” she says. The others panic and pile on. Having failed on grounds of practicality and moral values, the Doctor resorts to threats. He says if they want to throw Sky out, they’ll have to throw him out too.

Once more, it’s the Hostess who tells it like it is. “Okay,” she says. Sting!

And the mood shifts to questioning the Doctor. Who he is, why he’s on board, why he seems to relish the situation so. It’s here that we begin to sense the Doctor losing. We realise how flimsy the Doctor’s story must appear, when given the slightest scrutiny and without a companion by his side to back him up. When challenged about his assumed moral superiority and the right he has to take control of the situation, his response is desperate and arrogant.

“Because I’m clever,” he says, and that’s the moment where he loses everyone’s respect.

The Doctor usually wins by inspiring others to be their best, but here all he has done is alienate and antagonise them. They take offence, and when he tries to fob them off with his usual lazy pseudonym, John Smith, they don’t believe a word of it. At this point, there really is nothing to stop them from throwing him out of the ship. As the Hostess, points out, “He’s practically volunteered,” providing a moral justification for ejecting him. He’s a liar, a braggart and, by protecting Sky, a danger to them all.

When the creature finally captures the Doctor’s voice, his deconstruction becomes complete. He’s left paralysed and babbling on the floor. But former antagonists, the Hostess and Dee Dee, start to put two and two together.

While the others are preparing to throw the Doctor out, spurred on by the Sky/Creature, they start behaving like the Doctor. They notice the logical flaws in the creature’s story. They look objectively at the evidence. It’s a sudden about-face, but crucially it’s because they have both listened to what the Doctor has said. When the creature uses the Doctor’s favourite phrase, “allons-y,” the penny drops and the Hostess expels Sky and herself in the process.

You can see this self-sacrifice as being consistent with the Hostess’s sense of duty to “keep this vessel safe.” Or it could be seen as penance for her earlier suspicion of the Doctor and her stoking of tensions throughout the event. But I see it as the series snapping back into its basic shape. The story needs someone to be the Doctor, and if he’s incapacitated or all his usual strategies are neutralised as they are here, someone else will step up. His very presence will inspire scared, prejudiced humans to be better people, by using their intelligence to inspire acts of bravery and self-sacrifice.

In setting out to disprove Doctor Who’s fundamental tenet, Midnight actually reasserts it. While the rest of the cast are utterly broken at the story’s end, their relationships in tatters, their personal integrity destroyed – the Hostess proves once again why the Doctor loves humans so much. She just took the long way around.

LINK TO Genesis of the Daleks: TARDIS Wikia tells me that “This is the first televised story since Genesis of the Daleks in 1975 not to feature the TARDIS.” And talking of the long way around…

NEXT TIME… We’re off to Space Glasgow and we’re Hell Bent.

 

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Reverence, irreverence and The Shakespeare Code (2007)

shakespeare

In the newfound Twitch-inspired spirit of “London, 1965!” let’s head back for a moment to The ChaseSo many wacky things happen in that story, but among my favourites is when the Doctor and co take possession of a big television, upon which they could watch any event in all of space and time. Given free rein on this miraculous device, all Barbara wants to do is tune in to see Shakespeare throwing around ideas for new plays with Elizabeth I and Francis Bacon. Any kids watching as an Saturday escape from the weekday grind of school must have groaned. All of time and space filled with Daleks and Zarbi and she wants to watch Shakespeare?!

But it’s typical of classic Doctor Who, which loved Shakespeare from afar, but never sought to meet him in person. The Doctor never travelled back in time to meet him and have an exciting adventure in doublet and hose (which when you think about, seems perfect for Season 2). And though he once claimed to have done some light secretarial work for Shakespeare, he might have just been trying to impress a beautiful woman, probably.

For 20th century Who, Shakespeare was there only to be reverentially alluded toIts various producers never mined Shakespeare for plots. It robbed other works of fiction shamelessly, from The Prisoner of Zenda to High Rise, but we never got the Doctor Who version of Twelfth Night or Macbeth. We never even got a trip back to meet Richard III or Henry V to compare them to their  Shakespearean depictions.

Instead, the show referenced the Bard through quotes, often with a knowing wink to the audience. The first Doctor quoted The Merchant of Venice while the sixth loved Hamlet. But the fourth was the greatest Shakespeare fan. Tom Baker never missed an opportunity to insert a few lines in a quick audition for the RSC. My favourite is, “out out, dusty death” after a Cybermat was killed with gold dust, but no doubt you have your own.

All this is to say that old Doctor Who kept a respectful distance from Shakespeare. But new Who likes to put its literary heroes centre stage. So Doctor Who meets Shakespeare seems not only like a cracking idea for adventure, but also long overdue.

*****

In The Chase, Shakespeare is the mousy, middle-aged, high foreheaded figure we know from his portraits. In The Shakespeare Code, he’s a handsome young buck, played with schoolboy charm by Dean Lennox Kelly. This type of Shakespeare was a recent innovation in 2007. The irreverent influence of 1998’s slick, self-aware cinema hit Shakespeare in Love was still palpable.

Shakespeare in Love also portrays Shakespeare as a young, bawdy rock star figure. He’s played by handsome Joseph Fiennes, as a character whose literary genius makes him attractive to many around him, and not just the ladies. He dashes about in a flappy shirt, a tight leather jacket and a single stud earring. He fights and quips and drinks and wins the girl, who’s dressed as a boy. He’s the unmistakable hero of the piece, and a long way from that bookish looking fellow with the pinched face, the ruff and the goatee.

The Shakespeare Code not only mirrors Shakespeare in Love’s take on Shakespeare; it also adopts its jokey, self-referential tone. In both, Shakespeare hears his own famous lines being quoted back at him and modern day affectations, like fans asking for signatures and therapists’ sessions, are aped. In both, the Master of the Revels is a sneering threat and Queen Elizabeth makes a cameo. Both are comic, knockabout adventures.

Except that in The Shakespeare Code,  Shakespeare is not the hero. There’s our tall, flappy coated Doctor (David Tennant) for that. So Shakespeare has to play second fiddle to him here, rushing around behind him and Martha (Freema Agyeman) like an extra companion. Like our other celebrity historicals, he’s enlisted into the Doctor’s coterie to help save the day. And in a trait common to lots of 21st century Who (but particularly noticeable in stories written by Gareth Roberts), the guest character has to step up and save the day, when the Doctor needs help. Here Shakespeare is inspired by the Doctor to find the words which seals the witchy Carrionites’ fate. After years of the Doctor taking his cue from Shakespeare, it’s nice to see how that works in reverse.

***

This is the first of Roberts’ many scripts for the series, and the last one to be Randomed, so it’s worth thinking about his contribution to the show. In fact, it would  be shirking a difficult topic not to. His episodes are well regarded, but lately, he’s been provoking fierce reactions through Twitter account, which often expresses his disdain for the political left. He also offended many with a couple of ill-considered tweets about trans people. All of this means there is a distinctly critical prevailing view of him at the moment.

It would be a shame, though, to discount his Doctor Who episodes, which are consistently smart, witty and well constructed. It took until Series 3 for Roberts to be added to the show’s writing retinue, but once he was, he quickly became a regular fixture, presumably because of his ability to reliably deliver good quality scripts. The Shakespeare Code is typical of his work: regularly funny, with a string of good one-liners, but also well plotted, hitting the right beats and the right time, creating interesting characters and using them as counter-points to the Doctor. You can see why Russell T Davies and later Steven Moffat kept inviting him back. He always delivered the goods.

Whether he’ll be invited back though… well, who can say? It seems unlikely. But for now, what we have are six better than average episodes written (or co-written) by someone whose public persona is as a provocateur, a sideline commentator, an occasional contrarian and for some, it must be said, an unforgivable transphobe. It’s an interesting dichotomy if you’re attracted to his creative work, but not to his politics or the way he expresses himself.

But because of that, I’d argue that how we view The Shakespeare Code and his other work, has changed since 2007. And how we view that work in future years, of course, remains to be seen. But I think this is Doctor Who’s fandom’s first struggle (at least in the 21st century) between recognising the quality of a piece of work, while finding its creator’s views objectionable. Can we no longer bring ourselves to do the former, because of the latter? But for some, that’s absolutely going to be the case.

****

Back to that moment in The Chase. If only Hartnell and Co had twisted that dial a little further backwards, they might have been able to watch the events of The Shakespeare Code on that big ol’ TV. What would the first Doctor have made of it?

VICKI: Look! There’s a young, dashing Doctor with a black assistant! (Doctor sits down in shock)

BARBARA: And Shakespeare’s a spunk! (Doctor loses consciousness)

IAN: And in the space year 2017, the writer of this adventure causes a furore by offending trans people everywhere! (Doctor keels over and regenerates)

LINK TO… Mission to the UnknownDid Roberts name his heroine in Planet of the Dead after Mission actor Edward De Souza? For the purposes of this link, let’s say yes.

NEXT TIME: Let’s stick with that particular TARDIS team and watch them put some Morok arms in Xeron hands while visiting The Space Museum

Albert, George and Tooth and Claw (2006)

doctorwho-toothandclaw11

PRINCE ALBERT: Ah, Sir George. Absolutely wunderbah to see you again!

SIR GEORGE MacLEISH: Your Highness… (out of breath) ah… ah… you honour us with your presence… (wheeze) … yet again.

ALBERT: But my dear fellow, why are you so exhausted? Whatever have you been doing?

GEORGE: I’ve just finished… varnishing all the doors… and walls…

ALBERT: Oh that’s right.

GEORGE: With mistletoe oil.

ALBERT: I wondered what that smell was.

GEORGE: At your command.

ALBERT: And the wood carvings?

GEORGE: All done, your highness. Every door.

ALBERT: And the light chamber?

GEORGE: Installed in the observatory. It was right bugger getting that up the stairs.

ALBERT: But you’ve made sure it looks like…

GEORGE: Yes, your highness, it looks just like a telescope.

ALBERT: Very important that no one suspects its true purpose!

GEORGE: Only thing is… it only pivots along one arc.

ALBERT: So?

GEORGE: Well, we’re trying to capture the light of the full moon, right? But with the scope of the thing fixed along one arc, we have to wait until the moon is in exactly the right space, and that will only happen at specific times. If the moon’s not in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment, we’re stuffed.

ALBERT: You worry too much, Sir George. Though your language is charmingly rustic!

GEORGE: The thing is, your highness, the whole plan’s a bit like that.

ALBERT: Brilliantly ingenious, you mean?

GEORGE: No, I mean dependent on dangerously unlikely coincidences. Take the diamond, for example. You’re busy getting it cut to exactly the right design to reflect and focus the moonlight.

ALBERT: And when I’m gone, the Queen will take it to Helier and Carew, the royal jewellers at Hazlehead. Every year! To be recut! I won’t bother telling her this of course, but she’s a remarkable woman, she’ll work it out.

GEORGE: But how will the jewellers know when to stop? Cut too much away and presumably the diamond won’t work.

ALBERT: Well… I will take them into my confidence and explain what we’re doing so they know what’s going on.

GEORGE: Me first, please. And anyway, giving the Queen a pilgrimage to Hazlehead via my house just puts her in jeopardy. Annually. Why not just tell her to stay away from the place?

ALBERT: But that’s the whole point, Sir George. We’re going to kill the beast with the Koh-i-noor and the Koh-i-noor is always with the Queen.

GEORGE: Thereby putting her at maximum risk. I don’t know why I’m worried, though, because it’s probably never going to happen.

ALBERT: I don’t see why not.

GEORGE: Think about it, your highness. For a start, the Queen has to be travelling to Hazlehead and plan to stop at my house on a night with a full moon. And not just any full moon, but one which traverses the arc covered by the light chamber disguised as a telescope. Then she’ll have to find her way into the library, to research the nature of the wolf, and deduce that she needs to lead it to the observatory and have the diamond with her.

ALBERT: I think that sounds perfectly plausible!

GEORGE: So then the Queen, the wolf and the diamond all have to be in the observatory at exactly the right time. The light chamber has to be pointing at exactly the right spot at the sky and at precisely the right moment, the Queen has to place the diamond on exactly the right spot on the floor, at the right orientation, to produce the deadly moonlight ray. Even then, the wolf has to be standing in exactly the right spot for the beam to hit it.

And here’s another thing: we don’t even know it’s going to work. We’re just assuming that concentrated moonlight is going to kill the creature. It’s completely untested and if it doesn’t work, you’ll have left the Queen in a room with a werewolf, with only a finely cut diamond and a pretend telescope with which to defend herself.

ALBERT: Well, I don’t see any alternative.

GEORGE: Really?

ALBERT: If we don’t do this, what other possible plan could there be?

GEORGE:

ALBERT: Well, what?

GEORGE: We TELL someone, your highness! We tell the Queen, or the military or basically anyone so they know what we’re trying to do!

ALBERT: You dummkopf! No one would ever believe us.

GEORGE: You’re the Prince Consort, your highness. You could tell them we’re building a staircase to Mars and they’d have to do it.

ALBERT: Staircase to Mars, you say…

GEORGE: Your highness, please let’s focus on one thing at a time. Let’s tell someone what we’re doing. Someone with more weapons and resources and strategic skill than just the royal jewellers at Hazlehead. Or let’s tell the Queen, and she can order the army to do all this while she stays at home safe and sound. At least let’s write down our plan, so someone might one day find it and understand it…

ALBERT: Enough, Sir George! You worry too much. It will all come together in some pleasingly convenient way. No doubt, something will just drop out of the sky, and tie all these various elements into a coherent whole. The plan will work perfectly and the beast will be slain.

GEORGE: We could just go now, and find the wolf and…

ALBERT: Uh uh.

GEORGE: Or, we could put out some poisoned baits…

ALBERT: Now George, don’t worry about it. It will all be fine.

GEORGE: Sure. As long as clouds down obscure the moon at the crucial moment.

ALBERT: Forget the plan, you beautiful idiot! Haven’t you worked it out yet?

GEORGE: Worked what out?

ALBERT: All these late night conversations? All these trips to Scotland? It’s all a cover! An elaborate ruse so that we can be together!

GEORGE: It’s a what now?

ALBERT: Kiss me, you fool!

GEORGE: Oh.

 

LINK TO 100,000 BC: Hairy beasts!

NEXT TIME: we embark on a Mission to the Unknown… and one other random episode to go with it.

Slapstick, semiotics and The Unicorn and the Wasp (2008)

uniwasp

In the middle of The Unicorn and the Wasp, there’s a standout scene where the Doctor (dishy David Tennant) is poisoned after drinking a spiked lemonade. Cue an outrageous slapstick scene where he staggers to the kitchen to ingest a miscellany of random ingredients to order to “stimulate the inhibited enzymes into reversal” (hmmm, sounds sciencey). First ginger beer, then walnuts, anchovies… all accompanied by a frantic game of charades with companion Donna (Flapper, not slapper, Catherine Tate). The punchline to this elaborate joke of a scene is the delivery of a smooch from Donna to shock the Doctor’s system into expelling the noxious substance from his body in the form of a foul gas. From his mouth.

In the middle of this sly and witty murder mystery, here is a moment of pure slapstick. The elaborate physicality, the overplayed reactions, the knocking of over of all sorts… in fact, this could be Doctor Who’s ultimate slapstick moment. (Sorry, that sounds like one of those cheap clip shows which periodically materialize to eat away your time. “Doctor Who’s top 5 ultimate slapstick moments!” an excited voice over would announce, over a tinny version of the theme music and miscellany of publicity photos of past Doctors, flying at the screen).

It doesn’t get mentioned much, but slapstick has a proud history in Doctor Who, despite 80s producer John Nathan-Turner’s much stated opinion that comedy in the series was about wit, never slapstick. He was true to word, at least for the first few years of his producership. Later on, he presided over Bannermen being pelted by jars of honey, milkshakes being poured over café goers heads and the Kandyman being immobilised with soft drink… so he must have got over that particular bias.

JN-T used to talk disdainfully about slapstick in order to differentiate his era from the show as produced by Graham Williams, which fan lore held that was altogether too silly. But slapstick had long been part of Doctor Who’s approach: The Romans had comedy fisticuffs, The Seeds of Death a dash through a hall of mirrors and the Doctor smothered in a deluge of foam. Even the po-faced Pertwee years found a few minutes to run over a tramp with a hovercraft.

It was Russell T Davies, though, who truly reveled in slapstick moments in Doctor Who, from the Doctor and Rose’s madcap dash from the Hoix in Love & Monsters, to the Doctor’s expulsion of radiation into his shoe in Smith and Jones. Davies was never afraid of making the show look silly, in the way which seemed to terrify Nathan-Turner (at least until he dropped green gunge over Balazar’s face in The Mysterious Planet). He knew that slapstick was a delightfully sweet treat within an otherwise dramatic episode.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is something different, though. It is, as Davies acknowledged in The Writer’s Tale, his first attempt at an all-out Doctor Who comedy and slapstick is only one of the tactics used, in a kind of mixed lolly bag of comic approaches. (Though for a comedy, it has some grim undertones. It does, after all, feature an alcoholic mother who loses both her sons on the same day. Fun times!).

For a start, there’s pastiche. This is not just a Doctor Who version of an Agatha Christie story. It a Doctor Who version of the television adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. You’ll know them as handsome Sunday night viewing: large casts, beautiful costumes, stunning locations and faithful recreations of times gone by. The story’s structure lifts familiar scenes from these adaptations – the dinner disrupted by murder, the gathering of suspects together for the big reveal. Even the filmic trappings of murder mysteries – flashbacks, spinning newspapers et al – are employed. At one stage, Donna’s eating popcorn like she’s watching the whole thing on TV. We know how she feels.

Then there are in-jokes. The constant quoting of Christie book titles. Donna’s pre-knowledge of Christie’s work. The deliberate evocations of, of all things, Cluedo. And the moment where Donna questions why Christie is experiencing events similar to her own plots. It’s a pleasant surprise when it turns out the butler didn’t do it. It’s so self-knowing it hurts, perhaps the most self-knowing the show has been since the infamous moment in Dragonfire (itself no stranger to slapstick), when a character quoted a Doctor Who academic book about the “semiotic thickness of a performed text.” Which in turn only added to Doctor Who’s semiotic thickness.

On top of all this, it’s just funny. Barely a scene goes by without a joke, verbal or visual. You can choose your own favourite, but mine’s how Davenport (Daniel Hill) sheepishly pokes his head out of Roger’s (Adam Rayner) bedroom door during the corridor scene. But that’s closely followed in my affections by:

DONNA: It’s a giant wasp.

DOCTOR: What do you mean, a giant wasp?

DONNA: I mean, a WASP that’s GIANT!

What I’m getting around to saying is that Doctor Who has often used comedic techniques in the past, just never before all at once. And thinking about this episode and how it mixes genres and comic forms made me ask: when does it stop being homage and start being spoof?

Doctor Who skirts this line occasionally. Other examples include Delta and the Bannermen, City of Death, The Gunfighters and The Feast of Steven. But I think spoofs (spooves?) prioritise the gags over telling a consistent, logical story. We’re yet to have the Doctor Who equivalent of Flying High for example (no, Time-Flight doesn’t count) because Doctor Who is never just a string of jokes. And The Unicorn and the Wasp is certainly more than a string of jokes; the weaving in of Christie’s story of lost love and self doubt gives the story a contrasting element of pathos.

But it’s an unusual experience watching this constantly self-referential story, so eager to invite us all to be in on its extended joke. Christie’s personal crisis aside, there’s barely a moment which isn’t winking conspiratorially at the viewer. It’s Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel, while saying to its audience, “Look! This is Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel! With a big slapstick routine and a WASP that’s GIANT!”

The semiotics of a performed text has never been so thick.

LINK TO The Angels Take Manhattan: Talking of genre… as this story takes up murder mystery, The Angels Take Manhattan is Doctor Who doing film noir.

NEXT TIME: Talking of self-knowing references… Even the sonic screwdriver won’t get us out of this one. It’s time for The Invasion of Time.

 

 

 

Words, pictures and Partners in Crime (2008)

vorlax

I found myself listening to the DVD commentary track on Partners in Crime. It features Execs Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner plus director James Strong and they make for jolly company. Davies is in ebullient form, gushing over various aspects of the production, explaining his creative choices with confidence and generally laughing at the sheer unlikeliness of it all. Gardner is equally fulsome, quick to address the episode’s technical faults but still clearly loving it none the less. Strong is a more reserved, but wry and happy to be the butt of good-hearted barbs about any directorial shortcomings.

Funnily enough, I’d also listened to the commentary track on the recently randomed Journey’s End. That one’s even more uproarious and features Davies, David Tennant and Catherine Tate. They keep it together well enough, until Tate abandons talking about Doctor Who and reveals news about her new kitten. (The name? I wouldn’t spoil it for you, but it brings the house down). Laughs galore. Hooray. Marvellous.

I mention all this because of the aura it gives off – of a program created by people who love what they do, who get along famously, and who have a heartily good time making it. These DVD commentaries are texts of their own, they suggest a working environment for late RTD era Who of grand behind-the-scene bonhomie. It all sounds like immense fun.

*****

A book I return to time and time again is The Writer’s Tale, by Davies and DWM feature writer Benjamin Cook. It’s a magnificent blow by blow account of Davies making Doctor Who from 2007-2010. The book’s two authors correspond via email and Davies is incredibly candid about the pressures involved in making the show. And although his humour and mischievousness still shine through, a lot of the book shows the melancholy and loneliness of creating a TV show, the size, scope and expectations of which are bewildering. It contrasts strongly with the green room party feel of those commentary tracks.

(Oh, that book. It’s addictive. On occasion, I’ll decide to just dip into quickly to check something or other. Two hours later I’m still reading it. Anything else scheduled gets abandoned. Honestly, it should come with a warning.)

The book starts with the production of series 4, and so Partners in Crime is featured heavily. We get to trace it from conception through the broadcast, and it’s one of those stories that went through many changes. It always featured a new companion, until Catherine Tate was wooed back. It was going to feature furry beasts called the Vorlax, before the squishy Adipose were conceived. It also featured Donna’s Dad played by Howard Attfield, right through to filming, until ill health forced him out and he was replaced by Bernard Cribbins as Wilf.

All this is recounted in The Writers’ Tale, including a number of production snafus which irritated Davies. When Penny (Verona Joseph) is found hiding in a toilet cubicle, she’s right next to the one in which Donna’s hiding, despite Davies’ specific instructions. When two of Miss Foster’s (Sarah Lancashire) guards are electrocuted, it’s through an archway, not a doorway as Davies conceived.

In the book, these niggles really get under Davies’ skin. But on the commentary track, they’re playfully brought up to needle at Strong. Clearly, time had soothed RTD’s crankiness by the time he’d got to record the commentary. But still we’re left with two contrasting views of the making of the series; one dominated by Davies’ jolly, gregarious public persona and one in The Writers’ Tale, which shows a private persona which is highly stressed, constantly working and constantly self-doubting. And not just on Partners in Crime,  but on all those stories up until The End of Time. The Writer’s Tale pulls back the curtain and shows how ridiculously hard it is to make Doctor Who, behind the cheerful facade of its makers.

I wonder if the Moff will put out a similar book when he leaves. What about one which was the collected emails between him and RTD? I bet that would be eye-opening. I’d have to write off a full month.

*****

The Writers’ Tale also reveals RTD to be a cartoonist of some considerable skill. The book is peppered with sketches illustrating scenes from scripts in development and used by Davies as a way of demonstrating his vision for the final product. This shows Davies as a writer who conceives his stories in images, a truly visual storyteller. This month, a new book Now We Are Six Hundred, is released, jam-packed with Davies’ cartoons.

And Partners in Crime has a cartoony style to it. The charmingly cute fat babies, the Adipose, are creations straight out of Pixar. The screwball style of the Warner Brothers cartoons is evident too; not just Miss Foster’s temporary levitation (complete with eyes bulging in surprise) before falling to her death, which as Davies says on the commentary is pure Wile E Coyote. But also the scene of the Doctor and Donna popping up from behind cubicles like meerkats, but always just missing each other. And Penny escaping tied to a chair.

Not to mention that when the Doctor and Donna give us the conversation behind two windows routine, it ends with Catherine Tate paused mid face pulling, like a frame taken from a Looney Toons classic.

There could have been more of it. Why not make these cartoon moments even more prominent? Have more cartoony set pieces? When the Doctor runs, his legs could rotate like crazed windmills. When knocked unconscious, stars and birds could circle around his head. Sounds too out there? I think as a madcap one off, it could be fun. Planet of the cartoons, Donna might say.

And if there was a ever a Doctor to pull it off, it’s surely Tennant, with his gangly limbs, big eyes and spiky hair, he comes ready to draw. I can already see anvils dropping on his head and pointy lumps growing from his skull. Or him temporarily suspended in mid-air, arms and legs outstretched in moments of surprise or anger. Eyeballs leaping out from his face. What’s up Doc, indeed.

T-t-t-that’s all, folks.

LINK TO The War Games: companions who will eventually have their memories of their time with the Doctor wiped.

NEXT TIME… is there any intelligent life here? We find out on The Mysterious Planet.

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.

Ms Coats’ rules, Mr Jones’ mysteries and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2006)

IDA: But Doctor, what did you find down there? That creature, what was it?

DOCTOR: I don’t know. Never did decipher that writing. But that’s good. Day I know everything? Might as well stop.

ROSE: What do you think it was, really?

DOCTOR: I think we beat it. That’s good enough for me.

Films and TV programs generally explain everything about the story they’re telling. They leave no stone unturned, they explain all the relevant events and all the characters’ motivations. Generally speaking, this is good practice. If they didn’t do this, we’d complain about sloppy writing, and about story threads left untied.

In this way, stories are really not like real life, where it’s quite common to not find out everything. Some things that happen to us remain unexplained forever. We never find out exactly what happened. That, as they say, is life.

There are quite a few things about The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit that we never get to the bottom of, the true nature of the Beast being just one of them. Why, for instance, can it not speak in its bestial form, but can when possessing an Ood? How can it speak out of thin air when tormenting archaeologist Toby Zed (Will Thorp)? Why does it suddenly appear as a hologram on the control deck? I’m prepared to accept that it can somehow transfer the spooky rock writing to Toby’s hands and face when it possesses him, and make it appear and disappear at will, but how can he stand on the surface of Krop Tor unprotected and survive? And why, in the close knit team of Sanctuary Base 6, do two dialogue-less crew members, unfortunately killed by Ood, not have names? (I like to think of them as Mr Cannon and Ms Fodder, though acting Captain Zachary Cross Flame (Shaun Parkes) doesn’t even list them in his litany of the dead at the story’s end, so we’ll never know.)

The Doctor’s right. Not knowing can be good. If we’re satisfied with everything else; the story, the direction, the atmosphere. We’ll go along with things for a surprising amount of time. And it helps that The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit gets so much right; well defined characters played by able actors, some great design work that allows us to forgive the inevitable running along corridors,  and some directorial flourishes straight out of a 1980s horror film. And if there’s some mystery left over about origins and motivations, maybe it just makes the whole thing that bit more unsettling.

****

But on the other hand… consider No. 19 of Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling, as observed from working on Pixar films.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Both of these apply to this story and oddly enough both involve the TARDIS. When a quake hits the Sanctuary base, four of its storage bays fall into centre of the planet. As it happens, the TARDIS is in one of those storage bays, making life very tricky for the Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper). That’s a coincidence which gets our heroes into trouble, and they worry about it from that point forward, even going as far as to contemplate getting a mortgage. (The Doctor looks horrified, so presumably he’s thinking of how much he’ll have to fork out for a one-bedder in Sydney. And those things aint bigger on the inside.)

But towards the end of the story, when the Doctor is facing the Beast alone, deep within the planet’s underworld, the TARDIS miraculously turns up. And handily, at exactly the right time to save the day. That’s the second kind of coincidence. I’d hesitate to call it cheating. But it’s one of those illusion shattering moments. A real shame too, because up until then the story had stayed this side of believability.

Back when talking about The Power of Three, I’d mentioned Speed and the bus jumping over the gap in the overpass. The TARDIS turning up in the final reel is this story’s bus moment. But it’s interesting how much it got away with before that happened. The Beast and its inconsistent ability to speak? Toby surviving on the planet’s surface? All this the story’s pace and slick direction helped hide. But when the TARDIS shows up, we feel that bus land with a thud. Who can tell why? More mysteries. Perhaps Ms Coats knows.

****

The overall impression of this story is of scary things left unexplained. Which in a way is absolutely fitting for a tale which is really about the nature of belief. Even the Doctor, normally silent on the question of faith, is forced to question what he holds as true and the reasons why. But in order to defeat the Beast, he has to take a giant leap of faith; he has to cut off Rose’s escape route, while trusting that she has the smarts to get herself out of trouble. Rose too has exhibited an unfailing belief that the Doctor would find a way back from the base of the pit, and indeed he does. In both cases, faith gets rewarded.

This air of mystery leaks out of its fictional universe and into ours as well. In normal circumstances we’d turn to the story’s writer to give us some insight into all these narrative gaps. But Matt Jones has been silent on the topic, for over ten years. Never giving an interview, and least none I’ve seen (correct me in the comments if you can). In fact, is he the only new series writer to not talk about his script, not in press interviews, or DVD commentaries or on Doctor Who Confidential? As silent as that voiceless Beast stuck down the pit.

The day we know everything about The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit? I don’t think it’ll ever come.

LINK TO The Day of the Doctor: both star Tennant and Piper. Hmm, Tennant and Piper. Precocious children’s names bestowed by posh parents or a seventies pop duo?

NEXT TIME… it’s all aboard Tardis with Dr. Who, Susie, Tom and Louise as we go back to the cinema for Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.