Tag Archives: donna

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Gunfire, accusation and Planet of the Ood (2008)

planetood

Just last random, I mentioned that you don’t see gunfights in new Who. This isn’t quite right. Planet of the Ood for instance has loads of gunfire. Set on the squiddy ones’ home planet, the Ood-sphere, it tells the story of some Ood-exploiting big business types who employ lots of gun-totin’ guards. Why they employ them, it’s not quite clear. Where’s the security threat on a planet inhabited only by the benign Ood? But anyway, it’s just as well they did employ them because soon they’re in the middle of an Ood revolution. And the shooting – lots of it – begins.

But there’s am important difference between gunfire in old and new Who. In old Who the bullets hit their targets.

In Planet of the Ood, this difference is writ large. On lots of occasions, we see soldiers opening fire on the menacing Ood. They’re firing multiple rounds from what look like sub automatic weapons (like I know what sort of guns they are, though) and point blank range. And every time, the camera cuts to another shot. Or to another scene. Or we quickly close up on the guns. We see flashes from muzzles, we hear gunfire on the soundtrack. We see their bodies fall on the shredded paper we’re all agreeing to call snow. But we never see a bullet hit an Ood and we never see one bleed.

Old Who was never so squeamish. Think of bullets smacking into Haemovores in The Curse of Fenric. Think of Solon shooting his brutish servant Condo at close range in The Brain of Morbius. Or of our good friend the Brigadier blazing away in a warehouse full of cronies in The Ambassadors of Death. And of course there was blood. Blood all over the place, in dozens of stories. Doctor Who was never an overly gory programme, but it shows gunshots and blood frequently and uncompromisingly.

It also had its fair share of fist fights and hand-to-hand combat too, often involving the Doctor. It wasn’t unusual to see Doctors 3 through 6 getting involved in a dust up, and before that male companions Ian, Steven, Ben and Jamie handled the rough stuff. But in new Who, a bit of biff is rare. Eccleston fought he way out of gaol once and Smith once punched an android. Did Tennant ever have to hit someone? I don’t think he did. The Pert would wipe the floor with all of them.

But, as I’ve mentioned before any shocking piece of violence was likely to be followed by a shockingly fake one. Guards in old Who were forever being rendered unconscious by light taps on the neck. A soft double handed blow to the top of the spine felled many an extra. A small twist to the arm was enough to send Stuart Fell tumbling and if Tom Baker knocked two heads together their owners were out for the count. Sometimes it was too cheesy for words, as in The Visitation when it became clear the Doctor and crew must have practiced a few moves in the TARDIS dojo, including the old ‘you run behind him and crawl up into a ball and I’ll push him over’ routine.

So old Who featured a mix of realistic and non-realistic violence in equal measure. There was a sort of logic around what was acceptable and not. And so it is in new Who. Planet of the Ood for instance shows many guards being sci-fi electrocuted by Ood translator globes, and that’s OK. And generally speaking, being struck by alien ray guns is fine. If it’s death by special effect, no problem.

But other moments can be surprisingly visceral. Late in the episode, big bad businessman Kleinman Halpen (Tim McInnerney, forever remembered as the snotty Captain Darling in Blackadder Goes Fourth) peels off his own head and is transformed into an Ood. It’s strong stuff, just as shocking as it is gross. But apparently not as bad as seeing a bullet hit its target. We can see an Ood vomit up its own brain, but not be shot. So there’s a weird double standard going on, where some confronting imagery is allowed, but some is specifically prohibited.

This careful approach to the depiction of violence is characteristic of the new series, and you can see it influencing the show in interesting ways. The new version’s most successful recurring monsters are the Weeping Angels and they kill without guns or even striking a blow, but are still beautifully creepy. And vampire stories such as Smith and Jones are devoid of blood, or even, as in The Vampires of Venice, devoid of vampires. But there’s a corresponding reliance on disturbing ideas which don’t necessarily need graphic visuals to back them up. Steven Moffat’s scripts are particularly relevant here, with danger being found by trying to prevent the most unconscious of human habits: don’t Blink, take a Deep Breath and Listen, there’s someone behind you.

In Planet of the Ood, the idea is that humans make for brutal slave masters and we’ll ruthlessly exploit our servants and gas them when they go feral. It’s the Doctor who invites the audience to compare themselves directly with the futuristic slave traders presented here. “Who do you think made your clothes?”,  he snarls at Donna at one point. And although she snaps straight back at him, his point is made. It’s reinforced later on when our heroes are on the run and all rigourously sanitised hell is breaking loose:

DONNA: If people back on Earth knew what was going on here…

SOLANA: Oh, don’t be so stupid. Of course they know.

DONNA: They know how you treat the Ood?

SOLANA: They don’t ask. Same thing.

It’s a criticism this episode is levelling at its audience, at the very society that produced it. It’s unusual and unsettling for new Who to adopt such an accusatory tone. We feel it again when Donna’s reduced to tears by the song of the captive Ood. All in all, it’s much more disturbing than a punch, a gunshot or blood stains on the shredded paper snow.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Halpen accuses the Doctor and Donna of being “photo activists”, rather than FOTO activists, or Friends Of The Ood. Which is odd because they get it right in the deleted scenes package on the DVD.

LINK TO The TV Movie: villains with glowing eyes. Not unique in Who is it. Let’s just quietly walk away from that.

NEXT TIME… Witch-wiggler? Wangateur? Fortune teller? Mundunugu? I’ve never seen such a State of Decay.