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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.

Inflexibility, impossibility and The Day of the Doctor (2013)

Fans sometimes talk about Doctor Who‘s infinitely flexible format. This is the show which can go anywhere and do anything. When an anniversary year comes around though, we discover this isn’t as true as we might like to think.

It’s all the fault of The Three Doctors really. It laid down a template for anniversary stories which ever since has been too good to resist. Multi Doctors, uniting against one enormous threat. Then The Five Doctors took it even further. Returning Doctors plus returning companions and lots of returning monsters.

The reunion episode is a TV staple, and on any other show, you could do it as often as you like. On ordinary shows, characters can age, and you can pick up with them years after their last TV appearance. You find out what ever happened to them, you try to guess which ones have had plastic surgery, it’s all good fun.

But Doctor Who can’t do that because each of the Doctors is meant to be ageless. We saw each of them turn into another of them, before they got old and creaky. Reunion shows doomed forever. Flexible format, my foot! The Day of the Doctor is bogged down in a format it inherited from Old Who and which was, by 2013, almost impossible to use.

Because here’s the problem. What other possible shape could the show’s 50th anniversary episode take? It’s very difficult to imagine it not being a multi Doctor story, because that’s what Doctor Who anniversaries are. And it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t at least acknowledge each actor to play the title role.

Steven Moffat knew this. More than that, he wanted this – and more. He wanted every single Doctor joining forces to save Gallifrey from the Daleks. It’s testament to his ingenuity and determination that he made this happen. Despite three Doctors being dead, four looking significantly different to their Doctorly prime and one flatly refusing to participate.

But that Moff is clever. He takes an impossible format and makes it work. How did he do it?

First, he makes this a story about the Doctor and the biggest day of his life. Think of how different an approach this is to The Three and Five Doctors, where the multiple Doctors simply come out to play, just to have an adventure. Setting this story on the last day of the Time War, gives it an event worth watching, not just a chance to rival Doctors squabble. It’s an event big enough for this biggest of episodes.

Secondly, John Hurt. Every anniversary story’s been short its full quota of Doctors, and each has come up with inventive ways around the problem. But Moffat’s is the most audacious. Without Christopher Eccleston, he needs a Doctor upon whom to shoulder the story’s moral core – the redemption of the Doctor post his Time War atrocity. At a pinch, it could have been Paul McGann. But in search of a marquee name to hang out the front his 50th anniversary, the Moff creates an entirely new and hitherto unheard of Doctor and has him played by a movie star.

Think the Doctor is a tough role to play? Pah, step aside children. Hurt is instantly right in the part, creating, as McGann did 17 years earlier, a fully formed Doctor in about an hour. There’s a lovely bit somewhere in all the associated behind the scenes material about this story, where Doctors Smith and Tennant giggle like naughty schoolboys about their own acting deficiencies compared to Hurt. Smith says he’s busy pulling faces like mad, when all John Hurt has to do is look, and the shot’s in the can.

It would have been great to have Eccleston back. But if he hadn’t said no, we wouldn’t have got Hurt. And it gives The Day of the Doctor the chance to say something new about its lead character; that there was a time when he strayed from the path and became everything a Doctor shouldn’t be.  It’s another way in which Moffat breathes life back into the anniversary show format, by asking that question he loves to ask: Doctor Who? Who is this man and what has shaped him? It’s more introspective than any other multi-Doctor stories to date.

Finally, he plays fast and loose with the structure of a Doctor Who story. You’d be well within your rights to expect a villain of some sort to turn up in the biggest Doctor Who story ever. You might be wondering where the final showdown is, with the Doctors squaring off with some big arse Time Lord baddy, as per Three and Five. Instead Moffat gives us two alien invasions – the Zygons on Earth and the Daleks in the skies above Gallifrey- but boldly keeps these on the sidelines. The main question posed is not, “will the Doctors win?”, but “can the Doctor heal himself?”

The answer turns out to be, “yes, but only if we completely retcon the new series”. Moffat is unafraid of such bold, sweeping moves. In The Big Bang, he completely reverses the whole of Series 5. In The Wedding of River Song, he negates an alternative timeline. He’s used to travelling back to a crucial point in history, and just changing it. Time, remember, can be rewritten.

So in one fell swoop, he changes the outcome of the Time War, saves Gallifrey from destruction and absolves the Doctor of his crimes. It’s a resetting of the show along the lines of the classic series. The Doctor’s no longer a war criminal, Gallifrey’s in the heavens and all’s right with the world. Plus he manages to rope in all thirteen of the Doctor’s to help, in a smorgasbord of archive footage, vocal impersonations and impressive eyebrows.

Oddly enough though, here he’s on much more traditional anniversary story ground. The Three Doctors ended with the end of the Doctor’s earthly exile. Reset! The Five Doctors ended with the Doctor on the run from his own people again. Reset! And here, a new start, unburdened by the weight of the Time War, which the series has dragged around since 2005.

All delivered in 3D, in cinemas and a guest appearance by Tom Baker. So hats off to the Moff. Upon being told there were no toys left in the toybox, he held a kickass party anyway. And rewrote Doctor Who along the way. Yeah, that’s how he did it.

LINK TO Resurrection of the Daleks: the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey threatened in Resurrection finally happens.

NEXT TIME: The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God. We do the Devil’s work with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

Moments, memories and The End of Time (2010)

Moment 1: When The End of Time Part Two was shown, there was a plaintive update from one of my Facebook friends. She just said:

“I don’t want you to go either.”

***

Back in the here and now, I’m thinking of what to say about The End of Time. It’s too obvious, I think, to talk about how this is all about Tennant and showrunner Russell T Davies leaving the show. It might be interesting to talk about how this is a story about veterans being dragged back into war. Or it might be interesting to talk about some of Davies’ favourite tropes: prophesies, people turned into super beings, things which are ‘lost‘ and things which ‘return’.

But I keep coming back to Tennant and what it means to have him leave the series. On one hand, The End of Time is a vehicle for that departure, certainly one that celebrates and honours him too. So far, so every regeneration story.

Except that Tennant is not just any Doctor. He’s the one who spearheaded the show’s growth in popularity in the noughties. He’s the one who attracted a sizeable female audience to the program, including Mrs Spandrell. He’s the only Doctor to rival the mighty Tom Baker’s claim to being everyone’s favourite Doctor. So Tennant leaving is huge and risky.

I don’t want you to go either, said my Facebook friend. Not just because she’ll miss his handsome face. But also because of an unspoken fear, that things will never be the same again.

***

Moment 2: At the Sydney Opera House for the Symphonic Spectacular (oh.. so much fun) in 2012. There’s a hero piece which features each Doctor’s regeneration, on a giant screen while an orchestra plays. Each Doctor gets their applause, with a spike for Tom Baker.

Eventually, David Tennant, and the place goes nuts. Matt Smith’s the incumbent Doctor at this stage. But it’s clear that Ten rules that room.

****

What is it that makes a room full of Who fans, young and old, new and classic, dragging along their mums, their kids and their long suffering spouses, go nuts for a big screen full of David Tennant regenerating? Why does he get the biggest, longest cheer? What endears him to them so?

Tennant was not widely known before Doctor Who. When he took it on, the role seemed to fit him like a glove. Perhaps because as a childhood fan he’d spent so much time preparing for the part. For male fans, he seems like one of us, the one who actually got to fulfil his boyish fantasies about playing the Doctor.

Oddly enough, this inspires no jealousy. Instead, we cheer him on. How could you not? He’s too bloody good, like that kid you played football with, who went on to play for (insert name of impressively grand football team here), while you gave up and went home to eat biscuits.

For female fans (who like boys, and for boys who like boys) he’s clearly a dish, and funny and charming to boot. But he’s the first Doctor to take an interest in girls. To want to court girls, and to acknowledge that girls like him. He’s the first Doctor it seems possible to date. Likes to dress up, likes a bit of a laugh. And he’s a bit damaged, but not so much that he’s cruel or nasty. Just a bit sad now and then. Plus brave and daring… What’s not to fall in love with?

That’s why an opera house full of people cry out for Ten. Because he’s got something for everyone.

****

Moment 3: Watching late series 3 on broadcast with Mrs Spandrell. I can’t remember which ep, but there’s a swagger in the Doctor’s step.

ME: Tennant’s changed since his first year, but I can’t quite work out how.

Mrs Spandrell thinks for a moment.

MRS: Before, he didn’t know he was sexy. Now he does. And he’s loving it.

****

When The Waters of Mars ended with the Doctor realising the folly of his attempt to cheat history, it was unclear to me what his final line of “No!” meant. Perhaps, I thought, it was uttered in defiance of the laws of time and he’d keep on with his meddling ways. Then I had a great idea for what Tennant’s finale might be about.

I thought that Tennant might be playing a Doctor gone bad, one who had continued to indulge his newfound power for changing events, but had now left Earth a twisted mess of timelines. He’d be left to rule over the chaos, a moody, unpredictable despot. In an attempt to defeat him and set time to rights, the Master is resurrected to bring down the Doctor, thereby reversing the familiar roles of good and bay guy.

Of course it wasn’t to be. But it would have a interesting end to the Tenth Doctor, who ended up too big for his dusty old sandshoes. Because the hubris he displayed in The Waters of Mars would have been thoroughly answered for. As would have that broader arrogance which had developed in the Doctor throughout his tenure. That swaggering brashness. The Tenth Doctor started out as a chic geek, but throughout the years he became sexy and he knew it. And there’s still a hint of that ego in The End of Time.

About which more after…

***

Moment 4: Dinner out with Mrs Spandrell and a old friend who’s an avid watcher, but not quite a fan, of Doctor Who. Somehow, the conversation turns to David Tennant and his departure from the show and specifically the 10min+ sequence where he visits all his former companions. Indulgent, says our friend. Gushy, says Mrs Spandrell. They are in agreement. Self serving, shmaltzy… and then the entrees arrive.

***

It’s an epic story this. The Master (John Simm) on full tilt, turning a whole planet into duplicates of himself in the ultimate ego trip (don’t ask how they’re going to reproduce). The return of Gallifrey and of Rassilon (Timothy Dalton), leaving no scenery unchewed. A dogfight with spaceships and missiles. And the Doctor falling from the sky, crashing into a building and um, somehow surviving.

The end for Ten, when it comes, is the cleverest thing in the story. Poor old Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) tapping meekly on that glass door, making good on the much threatened “he will knock four times” warning, as smart a misdirection as the show has ever got away with. Before he saves his life, the Doctor’s furious. He wants to live. “I could do so much more!” he yells, but he’s forfeited that right. His hubris is what’s brought him down. He has to die, and the regeneration starts.

But then there’s the long goodbye. Nearly 15 minutes of it, visiting companions past, seeing who got married to this and who nearly got run over by that and who he can pimp out to the other. Schmaltzy and indulgent, yes. If this were the Davison era, we’d make do with a sepia flashback sequence. If it was the Pertwee era, we’d just unsentimentally roll back and mix. But this is the Tennant era, so it’s bold, brash and just that little bit full of itself. So it kind of works.

Then the TARDIS catches fire, and new Doctor arrives, screaming like a newborn. Things are never the same again.

LINK TO Face the RavenThe faux death of a regular, again.

NEXT TIME: Best news all day. It’s Resurrection of the Daleks.

Super heroes, super villains and Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (2007)

Each of the first few years of new Who resurrected a classic adversary from the series’ past. Year one: Daleks. Year two: Cybermen. In retrospect, it seems obvious that year three’s returnee should be the Master. But it didn’t feel like that at the time.

Because there’s always been an ambivalence about the Master. Sometimes he’s a dark yet fascinating mirror image of the Doctor. Sometimes he’s a plug and play villain with a penchant for theatrics and over complication. It would not have been inconceivable for new Who to leave him buried in the time war.

But as the new show’s third year progressed, there became something increasingly heroic about the Doctor. I mean that in the sense of him being a super hero.

With David Tennant in the title role, he becomes a man with super powers. He can grow back severed limbs. He can go for a mental stroll through people’s minds. He can expel radiation into his shoe. And of course he can disguise himself as a human. In Utopia and The Sound of Drums there are loads of shots of him running around to save the day, coat flapping in the breeze like a cape, sidekicks running slightly behind. You half expect him to fly.

The Master says that he was resurrected as the ultimate warrior for the time war. But in production terms, he was resurrected for exactly the same reason that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks created him in the first place. By series 3, the Doctor’s a super hero and so he needs a super villain.

****

Showrunner Russell T Davies would have been well aware of the mixed feelings around bringing the Master back. So he does exactly what he did with the Daleks and the Cybermen; he renovates him.

In the Master’s case, the first challenge is to cast a brilliant actor in the lead role, someone who can provide a gravitas to the role and improve its respectability, in the same way the casting of Christopher Eccleston had done in year one. But this year, Davies went one better than finding a top class actor for the role; he found two.

The first is Derek Jacobi. As Professor Yana, he’s a kindly, doddery old soul. As the short-lived version of the Master, he’s a raging beast, freshly awoken and hungry. His fury is palpable from the moment he turns on his horrified assistant Chantho (Chipo Chung) who’s just pulled a gun on him. “Now I can say I was provoked,” he says chillingly, although he’s clearly a man who answers to no one for his actions. He rails against her stupidity and leaving him trapped for years. Just before he zaps his insectoid helper with a live cable, he hisses out the words that many suspected but few dared to definitely guess until he said them out loud: “I… Am… The Master!” Electrifying. Still one of new Who’s best moments.

It’s a sign of how well Doctor Who was doing in 2007 that it could book Sir Derek Jacobi for one episode, have him play the Master for a few minutes, then burn right through him. But in only a few minutes he brings something new to this most familiar of characters- a seething resentment for the years he’s lost. This is a Master who feels hard done by. And when he regenerates, it’s not just a matter of life-saving expedience, it’s an act motivated by jealousy. “If the Doctor can be young and strong, so can I!” he declares. And in a flash of light, he looks like John Simm.

If Jacobi’s Master’s defining characteristic is anger, Simm’s is an ongoing delight at his own cleverness. He’s so pleased with his evil plan to take over the world, that he can’t help laughing, dancing and clapping his hands in joy. He’s a jokey, jovial madman. Davies has said that his aim was to make the Master as charming and charismatic as Tennant’s crowd pleasing Doctor and he got it spot on. Simm proves to be the first guest star of the new series who gives a performance which outshines the Doctor.

In The Sound of Drums, the Master is an entertaining bad guy, one you can’t help but like. In Last of the Time Lords, he becomes a hateful despot; a mass murderer, a bully, a torturer and a wife beater. In a series first, we get to see the consequences of the Master winning, and they’re not pretty. It’s clever of Davies, because one of the weaknesses of old Master schemes in which he threatened to take over the Earth – stories like The Claws of Axos and The Sea Devils, specifically mentioned here – was the nagging doubt about how a nutbag like him would manage to dominate an entire planet on his own. The answer given here is by totalitarianism on a grand scale. He’s Kim Jong Il but with killer floating globes from outer space.

****

Such an epic plan requires a reset switch of epic proportions. Best not to stop to think about Martha (Freema Agyeman) travelling the world solo and spreading her story to get the world’s population to pray to the Doctor at a specific time. Best also not to look too lingeringly at those closely framed shots of a few extras, attempting to show a planet full of people chanting “Doctor”. Best also not to think about how the Doctor uses the psychic energy to restore himself from a stunted, wizened elf to a flying, laser beam resistant super being, complete with a new costume. Well, he is a super hero these days.

All that’s just window dressing though. I think the cleverest part of the story is how in defeat, the Master finds a way to wound the Doctor. Throughout the story, the Doctor’s been explaining to the Master that they are the only Time Lords left, pleading that they only have each other. In a funny way, the Doctor longs for them to be together, in a way that the Master clearly doesn’t give two hoots about. When the Doctor talks mournfully of Gallifrey burning, all the Master can do is marvel at the idea of its destruction, almost lustfully.

So it makes perfect sense that the Doctor wants to forgive the Master for his heinous crimes, because he wants them to coexist. Perhaps even cohabitate, as the Doctor suggests as the Master’s captured. The Doctor’s so desperate not to be the last of the Time Lords he’ll save the Master and let him move in. But when he’s shot, the Master finds that by deliberately letting himself die, he’s denying the Doctor the thing he most wants: companionship. “I win!” he smiles as he dies. For him, it’s always been a contest. For the Doctor, a rescue mission.

It ends with the Doctor burning his old frenemy’s body on a pyre and a red fingernailed hand salvaging a mysterious ring from the ashes. It’s a comic book style ending. But that makes sense. ‘Cos comic books are where you’ll find super heroes and super villains.

LINK TO The Stones of Blood: as per last time, the post-coital scenes.

NEXT TIME: One man’s law is another man’s crime. We’re heading Inside the Spaceship.

 

 

Diversion, disruption and The Doctor’s Daughter (2008)

doctors-daughter

What happened was this. Writer Stephen Greenhorne made a seemingly innocuous comment in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, where he mentioned that the Doctor, as a character, never changes. Showrunner Russell T Davies read this and decided to challenge Greenhorne with an idea which would change the Doctor and see him develop as a character. His idea: to give him a daughter. And so here we are, with an episode designed to disrupt the Doctor’s cosy little world, and show us something new about him.

Looking back on it now, it’s a pleasing enough episode, if oddly structured, but it certainly hasn’t had that disruptive effect on the Doctor which Davies was aiming for. The addition of the Doctor’s daughter, Jenny (Georgia Moffett) may have proven a diverting development for 45 minutes or so, but at the end of the episode, she jets off into the night sky, never to be seen again. Did Davies plan for her to return, and be an ongoing fixture of the Doctor’s life – something which may well have changed the Doctor forever? It seems not – he brought back a panoply of companions for The Stolen Earth but not this game changing daughter he invented.

It’s in part because Jenny’s the Doctor’s offspring only in a sci-fi loophole kind of way. She’s created by some gene extrapolating whatsit designed to spit out new soldiers as fast as they’re killed. She’s comes with that get out clause; she’s only the Doctor’s daughter if we want to read it that way. Because of that caveat, and the fact that she’s never returned to the show, the whole idea feels gimmicky. A sensationalistic mid season gambit to combat the regular ratings sag around episode 6.

It’s one of a number of elements which gives The Doctor’s Daughter an air of not quite reaching its full potential. Consider also the fishy Hath who burble through mini tanks on rainbow coloured heads; a little too bizarre to sympathise with. Consider companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) brought along for the ride but relegated to an irrelevant subplot. Consider the central conceit that the warring parties on Messaline – the Hath and the belligerent humans – have been fighting a pointless war for only a week… it’s a neat twist, but it adds um, what exactly to the story?

The irony is that it was the casting of Georgia Moffett which had the real impact. If not on the Doctor’s life, then certainly on actor David Tennant’s, as before long the two were a couple and now have a family together.  It’s impossible to watch those closing scenes of the Doctor nursing Jenny in his arms and think not of Doctor and daughter, but husband and wife. Add this to the knowledge that Moffett is the actual daughter of previous Doctor Peter Davison (her opening line a self-referential “hello Dad”) and you have another of those stories which is impossible to watch without our fannish knowledge laying a couple of extra layers of meaning over the top.

*****

So Greenhorne’s Theory (as it now must ever be known) was actually proven right. The Doctor’s character is kind of story proof. The addition of unforeseen family members doesn’t change that. Perhaps we should have known; he’s had a granddaughter before and when she left, it wasn’t as if his character radically changed.

What, then, could be a game changer for the Doctor? I think the closest the series has come to this in the past is his exile to Earth during the Pertwee era. With his planetary travelling curtailed, a hint of frustration and deviousness crept back into his character, which could have developed into something quite dark. The Twin Dilemma too, was another point where something fundamental could have changed about the Doctor, given a more favourable set of circumstances.

Another potential pivot point for the Doctor was The Waters of Mars. Here, the Doctor develops a hubris based on his own powers and dallies with changing the timelines around to suit himself. It all goes wrong and the Doctor sees the error of his ways. But watching at the time, I wasn’t entirely that that was what had happened. I imagined an alternative version of The End of Time, with a Doctor whose newfound appetite for history changing had corrupted him, and made him the despotic ruler of a new twisted timeline, with the Master resurrected as the only being with a chance of stopping him.

What else might have a chance of disrupting the Doctor’s world? Could for instance, he incur a disability of some kind? What would, for instance, a blind Doctor be like for a couple of stories, or even a series? What about a Doctor in a wheelchair? Or what perhaps if he was robbed of his ability to regenerate? Or perhaps robbed of his knowledge of how to pilot the TARDIS, making every trip to a random destination, as per back in the old days.

Surely the big throw of the dice we’re waiting for – and now that Peter Capaldi is leaving it’s a live option again – is what if the Doctor became a woman? It seems we’ve been waiting for this for so long that it’s now become a bigger point of contention that it needs to be. A female Doctor seems increasingly inevitable – whether it will be 13 or not remains to be seen. But even if P-Cap regenerates into another man, that doesn’t necessarily mean a female Doctor couldn’t be experimented with. Surely in a series with Doctor-lite episodes and Christmas specials, there’s ample opportunity to try this out as a one-off and whet the audience’s appetite. Or perhaps a multi Doctor story where our guest Doctor’s played by a woman?

You want a big change to the Doctor’s character? Want to see how mutable our hero is? That’s the big one. It’s waiting in the wings, ready to be deployed at any moment. My bet is that would have a far more palpable impact than giving him a daughter, who’s not really his daughter and who we’ve forgotten about anyway.

Go on, Mr Chibnall. Give Greenhorne’s Theory a real test. I’m dying to see what happens.

LINK TO The Mind Robber: both have credited, but unrelated, Troughtons.

NEXT TIME: Your infantile behaviour is beyond a joke! We play a few games with The Celestial Toymaker.

Standing up, talking tough and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (2008)

silence

If you like to watch the DVDs of classic Doctor Who stories with the commentary track on, you’ll have no doubt heard a phrase often used by actors and crew members, when looking back on their work from years ago. When they’re pleasantly surprised with the quality of the story, they’ll invariably say, “it still stands up today”. (I’m not sure what the opposite is. Maybe, “this story is sitting down in a comfy chair these days”. Or perhaps, “this story has completely collapsed”). So it was with some surprise that I thought to myself about Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead, ‘this still stands up today’. And I thought that in regard to River Song (Alex Kingston).

I think I’m right in saying that writer Steven Moffat conceived of this story before he knew he was taking over as showrunner. So he filled these episodes with references to future adventures for the Doctor (here, an energised David Tennant) and River, which we were yet to see. Sort of continuity references in reverse. Now that River’s story has come to an end (or has it?) in The Husbands of River Song, the deftness involved in pulling together all those references can be fully admired. Did Moffat have some super long term plan? Or did he make it all up as he went? Either way, it’s impressive stuff, which, as they say, still stands up today.

There’s the occasional booboo. River should really know that the Tennant Doctor has yet to experience the crash of the Byzantium because she experienced that with Matt Smith’s Doctor. But she did see the end of the universe with him in The Big Bang and she did see armies run away in A Good Man Goes to War. But The Husbands of River Song gives us the most poignant realisation of River’s future prophesies, with the Doctor (now Peter Capaldi) turning up in a new suit, giving her a screwdriver and spending a night with her on Darillium. It’s fan-satisfying fodder.

It’s more than just showing off though. Yes, it’s pleasing that it all fits together in a nice jigsaw, but I think the more impressive effect is that it changes how we now watch Silence in the Library etc. Because now what River’s says makes sense. On broadcast, River was telling us how heartbreaking it was to see a Doctor who didn’t recognise her and telling us how frustrating it was he didn’t automatically trust her. But it never really hit home. It couldn’t. Because we’d never seen it.

Now we understand her much better; when she accuses him of being young, we understand why, because she knows that Matt Smith’s Doctor lived for thousands of years. When she talks about that last night he showed up, we know what she’s talking about. In short, this story has an emotional kick it didn’t have in 2008, because just like the Doctor, we know and care about River nowadays.

Many familiar Moffatisms are on display here. People being saved as digital copies of themselves. Speechless monsters speaking through a human victim. Spooky astronauts. Children at the centre of the narrative. Paying homage to The Tomb of the Cybermen. And one that always catches my eye, the Doctor’s reliance on his reputation to scare the monsters away.

As the Doctor flags early in this story, he has no idea how to defeat the people-eating shadows which have infested the Library. “Daleks, aim for the eyestalk,” he says. “Sontarans, back of the neck. Vashta Nerada? Run. Just run.” This turns out to be true, as this is one alien menace he doesn’t manage to defeat.  Instead, he ends up negotiating a temporary pause in hostilities while he empties the hard drive of all its stored inmates.

To do so, he engineers a stand off with the Vashta Nerada. He tells them to let him do his thing, and doesn’t even make a threat. All he says is, “I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.” And that’s enough for the shadows to acquiesce.

Moffat lets the Doctor pull this trick twice more. In The Eleventh Hour, he tells the boggle eyed Atraxi, “Basically, run.” And the much repeated speech in The Pandorica Opens, where the Doctor stands on Stonehenge and dares his enemies to come and get him, is of a similar ilk. It’s a habit Moffat grows out of – even atones for – because by the time we get to A Good Man Goes to War, the cost of his hubris is humiliating defeat and he vows in The Wedding of River Song to go into hiding for a while, and become a smaller target.

This was a good decision, because the gambit that results in the monsters running away simply because the Doctor has a past reputation for beating monsters, is inherently anti-dramatic. If it worked on the Vashta Nerada, why wouldn’t it work every single time? Just flash an ID card at the beginning of each story and let the enemy scarper.

Worse than that, there’s something inherently bullying about it which is not at all like the Doctor. “Basically, run,” might be a cool line, but at heart, it’s a shorthand threat to do someone in. It’s, well, ugly. I’m glad he’s dropped the habit.

There have been a couple of times where I’ve said the last minute restarting of a story never works. Well, here comes Forest of the Dead to prove me wrong.

In a combination of crafty writing by Moffat and skillful direction by Euros Lyn, the story shows how it can work brilliantly. It happens when the Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate, giving a funny and touching performance as her cyberspace self) turn around to leave the library, the camera focuses on River’s abandoned screwdriver and there’s a gentle voice over from Alex Kingston. All familiar signals that the story’s coming to an end. But then the Doctor races back, grabs the screwdriver and races back to the upload River and her mates to the data core. And as per another Moffatism, everybody lives.

Why does it work here, and not in those other examples? For a start, it happens really late in the story, not halfway through Part Four. Secondly, it comes as a surprise as there’s no hint that the story isn’t over. Finally, it uses every minute of screen time to tell the story, right up to those final moments where we see that even Donna’s fake children and Cal (Eve Newton) herself have been adopted by River. In short, it doesn’t muck around and gives us an ending more satisfying that the one we were already satisfied with.

Clever to the end, not only does this story still stand up, it’s standing taller than ever before, and that’s a rare thing indeed.

LINK TO The Fires of Pompeii. Same Doctor, companion and season. Easy!

NEXT TIME… This resolution may perhaps appear very bold and dangerous. We match wits with The Mind Robber.

Reliving history, telling the future and The Fires of Pompeii (2008)

firespompeii

Firstly, a spoiler. NEXT TIME… It’s Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead.

In that story, River says, “You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them, and it’s like they’re not quite finished. They’re not done yet.” Watching The Fires of Pompeii gives us that experience twice, as it features both Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi, pre- their days as TARDIS regulars.

Gillan is costumed and made-up to such an extent that you do have to squint a little to see Amy Pond lurking in a story she shouldn’t be in. But she’s there, although her posh accent and her earnest way of delivering her Soothsayer’s lines give us no hint of the companion she’ll become.

Capaldi’s presence, like Colin Baker’s in Arc of Infinity, is more distracting. There’s the Doctor, you keep thinking whenever he appears, although Capaldi’s a skilled enough actor to know that as a supporting character he’s there to complement, not steal focus from the main players. He gives a perfectly pitched turn as Caecillius, which is now basically ruined forever because he’s since become the Doctor. Admire your skillful performance, sir? I can’t! You’re the Doctor!

So The Fire of Pompeii’s job – to give us a complete fictional world to immerse ourselves in – keeps getting more and more difficult. These quirks of casting tear us away from the story. But it’s ironic that a story about prophesising the future, is doing so itself by showing us the show’s future stars. It should stop now though, or it’ll become completely unwatchable. Still… Phil Davies as the Master? Francesco Pandolfo as a companion? Tracey Childs as the Doctor?

It’s an odd mix, this story. On one hand, it’s relentlessly jokey, in a cheeky, post modernist way. Caecillius and his family have the 21st century family problems of a sitcom cast, all hungover layabout boys, and girls whose skirts outrage their father and so on.The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) wisecrack their way around the streets of Pompeii. Latin’s misheard as Welsh, and so hilariously on.

Showrunner Russell T Davies has a great love of the Asterix comic strip books by Goscinny and Uderzo, which take a jolly, action packed view of Roman occupied Gaul and you can see the influence clearly in Pompeii. Sly shoutouts to popular culture and modern mores are peppered through both. And when a character called Lucius Petrus Dextrus has a stone right arm, we’re not miles away from the likes of Vitalstatistix, Cacophonix and Getafix.

On the other hand, this is a story in which the Doctor and Donna decide to kill 20,000 people.

They do it in order to save the world, but it’s still a grim moment in a script which has been, up until then, busy cracking the funnies. Once they press the button, they run back through the town where terrified people are trying desperately to flee, but with little hope. The jokes have stopped, and instead we have the unsettling feeling of levity and tragedy sitting side by side.

This is reminiscent of the Doctor’s last visit to ancient Rome, back in ’64 (both AD and 1964) in The Romans. Back then, William Hartnell’s Doctor was shown to inadvertently inspire the Great Fire of Rome. “That fire had nothing to do with me. Well, a little bit,” says Tennant’s Doctor here and he’s right. Back then he was also partly responsible for another fiery disaster that destroyed an entire city and killed scores of people. And the whole affair was also a disconcerting mix of light and dark.

This is clearly what happens when the Doctor visits the ancient Roman empire. He should really steer clear of the whole place. If the TARDIS lands in ancient Gaul, Asterix should gulp down some of that magic potion of his and run a mile.

To get to the TARDIS and escape the devastation they’ve caused, the Doctor and Donna have to dash past Caecillius’s family, who are cowering in terror. It’s too much for Donna, who insists that the Doctor save them, if only them, from the volcano’s wrath. As ever, Donna’s humanising effect on the Doctor works, and the Doctor complies, although it means bending the laws of time.

It’s a nice touch, and saves the story from having an utterly depressing ending. It’s an twist on the ending of The Massacre where Hartnell’s Doctor and companion Steven escaped the slaughter of the Hugenots in Paris, but the Doctor didn’t attempt to save their newfound friend Anne Chaplet. There was a happy ending on that occasion too – we discover that Anne survived and sired a family line that eventually produced Dodo – but in that case it was pure chance. Here the Doctor deliberately intervenes, despite his initial instincts, and the story’s the better for it.

It’s also the start of a longer narrative for the Tenth Doctor, about him gradually loosening his commitment to the sanctity of history. It leads eventually to The Waters of Mars where he abandons it completely, and to the eleventh Doctor’s era, where his new mantra becomes ‘time can be rewritten’. This line of development continues into the twelfth Doctor’s tenure, and oddly enough, is also relevant to the dual casting of Peter Capaldi.

2015’s The Girl Who Died tackles the problem of Capaldi’s appearance in The Fires of Pompeii. In that adventure, the Doctor declares that he subconsciously chose Caecillius’ face for himself as a reminder. It’s a reminder that he saves people’s lives no matter what the rules say. With an angry cry, he turns on his heel and heads off to bring Ashildr back from the dead.

It’s all coincidental I assume, but there’s something neat about the fact that Capaldi’s performance in Pompeii is not just a continuity bump to smooth over, but a signal of an eventual shift in the Doctor’s character. He becomes a rule breaker, a master of time, not its servant and Capaldi’s face is the permanent expression of it. It’s one of those fortuitous instances when Doctor Who inadvertently forecasts its future and creates something new in the process.

Which leads us nicely to our next post on Silence in the Library. But as the saying goes, ‘spoilers’.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: lots of problems with tricky words like “sestertii”, “Appian Way”, “Allons y”, but also “underground” and unusually, “TARDIS”.

LINK TO Mawdryn Undead: truculent teenagers in both.