Tag Archives: eleventh doctor

Fast, foxy and Let’s Kill Hitler (2011)

letskillhitler

I don’t know about you, but most of my days are pretty busy. And on the busiest, I run from thing to thing, from appointment to appointment, from location to location and it’s kind of exhilarating. That’s great – but on some days, I can’t escape the lingering sensation, that while getting a lot of things done, I haven’t actually devoted enough time or thought to any of them, and so none get done particularly well. And at the end of the day, there’s a sense of having just gotten away with it, once again.

Let’s Kill Hitler, with its breakneck pace, and its flitting from location to location, reminds me of that sensation. There’s even a phrase to go with it – a quote about the Doctor from Journey’s End, which we can adjust to fit. This is the story which keeps running, never looking back, because it dare not.

Here’s an initial example: in this episode’s early scenes, showrunner Steven Moffat shows us companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill), frantically resorting to writing messages in fields of crops using a Mini, in order to summon the Doctor (Matt Smith). Then he introduces a new character – the best friend the Ponds have always had but never mentioned and who didn’t show up to their wedding. This is the awkwardly named Mels (Nina Toussaint-White), so called to not hint too broadly that she’s an earlier incarnation of Melody Pond, AKA River Song. (And presumably also because to call her “Mel” would have been to recall another perky, curly haired companion from the show’s distant past.)

Moffat’s a plotline contortionist but this is one of his less deft moves, retroactively forcing River Song into the Ponds’ backstory. His hammering of this idea into place facilitates the pleasingly ironic notion that the baby the Ponds have been longing to see has been with them all of their lives, but it doesn’t sit easily. Nor do the (thankfully few) flashback scenes where we see the adult actors made up to be ersatz teenagers.

But that’s fine, because before you’ve had time to process all that we’ve moved on, and a rapid TARDIS trip deposits us in Berlin 1938 and to meet the great dictator himself. Keep running! Don’t look back.

***

We should pause for a moment to consider Doctor Who’s depiction of Hitler (Albert Welling), a historical figure the show has always shied away from, perhaps for fear of trivialising the horrors of the Nazi regime or just never finding a comfortable fit for them within the show’s family entertainment remit.

Moffat makes a couple of shrewd decisions to make Hitler Who friendly. Firstly, he sets this story before the outbreak of war and thus before Hitler’s worst crimes had been committed. Secondly, he takes the Mel Brooks path, and makes fun of Hitler, before locking him in a cupboard for comic effect and removing him from the plot. Again, it doesn’t bear too much thinking about and once again the story moves rapidly on, so that we don’t have to engage with Hitler on anything more than a frivolous level.

There’s no time to linger on the notion in this episode, but Moffat doesn’t seem to shake the worries about the implications of Hitler existing in the same universe as the Doctor. He gives a line to not-quite-a-teenager Mels which gives voice to his concerns: “A significant factor in Hitler’s rise to power was the fact that the Doctor didn’t stop him”. And later, in Kill the Moon, the Doctor points out to Clara that he’s never killed Hitler. It’s an extension of one of humanity’s nagging worries about religion; instead of wondering why God allows bad things to happen, Moffat is wondering why the Doctor allows them to happen. We never get a satisfactory answer of course, because there is no satisfactory answer, only the usual flim flam about timelines and history being set and so on. But don’t dally, we need to keep moving.

***

Next up is Mels’ reveal about her parentage to her parents and her regeneration into River (Alex Kingston). This is another thread in a plot strand which has been hanging around this season, about River’s identity and where she comes from. It’s not entirely clear how River moves from a baby on Demon’s Run, to a little girl in 1960s America, to another little girl in Ledworth but there’s no time to draw that particular flow chart. Instead, we discover that River has been trained to be the Doctor’s bespoke assassin. She does for him with a Judas kiss, complete with poisonous lipstick, and then jumps out of a window, joking about dress sizes and hair does. Because, y’know, she’s a girl. Never mind, keep going.

While all this going on, we meet the crew of the Teselecta, a “time travelling shape shifting robot operated by miniaturised cross people,” as the Doctor puts it. They travel about intercepting history’s great unpunished villains in the moments before death and torture them, which is cheery. But they lose interest in Hitler when they find River Song, which leads to all other sorts of questions – River’s a bigger villain than Hitler? How, exactly? Who exactly is the Doctor married to here?

This story shows us two transformations of River Song – the first external, the second internal. Fatally injured, the Doctor has only his words left. He convinces River to be a better person, and within the space of a few short scenes, it’s quite the turnaround – from galactic supervillain worse than Hitler, to someone who’s prepared to give up the rest of her regenerative power to save the man she’s spent her whole life preparing to kill. Like everything else in Let’s Kill Hitler, it happens fast – a few choice phrases, an unsettling encounter with the TARDIS, a quick word with Mum and she’s convinced. There’s a fascinating story here – troubled by a vision of her future self, River buys into the Doctor’s story, to move from enemy to ally and eventually to lover… but such is the story’s pace we have to just accept it and move on. But we’re used to that by now.

***
Let’s Kill Hitler’s less of a Doctor Who story than it is an episode in the ongoing saga of the Doctor, River and the Ponds. By which I mean, Doctor Who’s standard format of the Doctor finding a problem, fighting to find a solution and eventually saving the day is suppressed in favour of drip feeding some answers to this year’s narrative arcs of “who is River Song” and “how does the Doctor avoid his forthcoming death”. I suppose the alternative would be that the Teselecta plot is pushed to the fore, perhaps with the Doctor being forced into the uncomfortable position of having to protect Hitler from his shapechanging torturer in order to protect the timelines. Or summat.

Instead, this is an episode absolutely enmeshed in its own mythology. Its own season arc has become the story, not just the intriguing background colour of Doctor Who as we know it. But Let’s Kill Hitler tells us to be fast, be foxy and be funny and you’ll just about get away with it.

LINK TO Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel: Both feature the Doctor in formal wear.

NEXT TIME: Prepare the Timelash, you microcephalic apostate!

Questions, more questions and Cold War (2013)

 

coldwar

I have some questions about Cold War.

  1. Do we need a Doctor Who version of The Hunt for Red October?

If the Doctor Who production team has a cinephile amongst it, I’m willing to bet it’s Mark Gatiss. He seems the most willing to mine (so much nicer a term than “rip off”) old movies for his Doctor Who plots, whether it’s When Eagles Dare or Zulu or The Blair Witch Project. Here, it’s 1990 submarine thriller The Hunt for Red October, a moody tale of a defecting Russian submarine crew, filled with well known Russian actors like Sean Connery, Sam Neill and Tim Curry. Cold War must be copying it. How else to explain filling a Russian sub with the various regional UK accents of Liam Cunningham, David Warner and Tobias Menzies?  While I’m on this subject…

  1. Why not just make it an American sub?

When Doctor Who does US based stories, American actors and accents get used without hesitation. Here the absence of Russian accents is conspicuous. Make it an American sub and you get around this problem and make it look a lot less like a remake of Red October. Plus you can then cut all that guff about the TARDIS’ translation circuits. And while I’m on that subject

  1. Why do the TARDIS translation circuits still function when the TARDIS has buggered off to Antarctica?

It wouldn’t irritate me so much, except everyone keeps mentioning it! First Zhukov (Cunningham), then Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), then Grishenko (Warner)…

  1. Why would a Russian military sub be collecting samples of frozen wildlife?

Is this how the Russian Navy spends its time? Moonlighting for National Geographic?

  1. Why would anyone think the ice-encased Skaldak is a mammoth?

He’s nowhere near the size of a mammoth and he’s green. You can see him, through the ice, fake Russians! He’s right there!

  1. Would an aging Russian scientist really be obsessed with Ultravox?

OK, so you’ve got an eccentric scientist on board. OK, so he collects ice samples with things in them. OK, David Warner’s allowed to do anything he likes. As a kind of Russian version of UNIT, I can sort of see it, if I squint. But would he really listen to British pop? Would he really sing along to Vienna while on board? Would he really be obsessed enough to ask Clara if they break up in the future? Does any of that really (sorry) hold water?

  1. Do we need a 21st century version of Warriors of the Deep?

So this episode is The Ice Warriors via Dalek. But the story it reminds me of most is Warriors of the Deep (and it’s not often you’ll hear someone say that about a new series story).

That 1984 story, told from the middle of the cold war, imagined that conflict stretching on for 1,000 years. From that perspective, the future’s a dystopia of humans with computer interfaces grafted into their bodies and a constant, pervading atmosphere of paranoia. Cold War, made in 2012 positions it as history. The Doctor (a frantic Matt Smith) has to explain to millennial Clara about how twitchy the whole world was at this time, like it’s something she’ll never experience. Gatiss can hardly be blamed for not predicting world events since writing, but watching in 2018, mid Trump, Putin and Kim Jong un, Cold War feels slightly off target, and Warriors of the Deep closer to the mark.

  1. Are the Ice Warriors fit for purpose in the 21st century?

In Dalek, it becomes rapidly clear that it only takes one of monocular brutes to destroy the world. The Ice Warriors, best known for their lumbering gait and getting woozy in the heat, are not as formidable. They’re the first classic series monster which has had to be completely reimagined for the new series; a hulking great turtle was never going to be able to sneak up on anyone in the cramped conditions of a submarine. So this new breed of Ice Warrior can unexpectedly jump out of his armour and scuttle about the place naked. Which leads to the question…

  1. Just how naked is Skaldak?

The camera modestly keeps its gaze above the chest, so thankfully we are never subjected to the sight of his mighty Martian wang. Presumably, it would have been too Carry On to see a reverse shot of his green arse running down an underwater corridor.

  1. Have we had enough of the Doctor vs old soldier trope?

Skaldak (Spencer Wilding, voiced by Nicholas Briggs) is not any old Ice Warrior, but the biggest, baddest of the lot. He’s a battle-hardened solider and not someone you mess around with. It’s a familiar situation for Matt Smith’s bandy legged Doctor, who often came across solitary remnants of old conflicts, pressing on with hostilities although the main show has moved on, as in A Town Called Mercy and The God Complex. On each occasion, it was important to compare the Doctor to the grizzled, damaged war veteran he was combatting, so, naturally enough that happens here too. To ram home the point, the Doctor even salutes him at the end, to acknowledge his magnanimous decision not to blow everyone up. While I’m on the subject…

  1. Are cold war brinkmanship stories doomed to be anti-climactic?

Interestingly, the Doctor is no match for Skaldak. In fact, he’s always one step behind him. When he eventually lays a claw on the big red button, the Doctor has no bright ideas left and resorts to threats to blow up the boat – buying into the threat of mutually assured destruction all around them (well, it makes a change from simply wheeling out his CV).

This doesn’t work and instead, he has to turn to the moral argument, appealing to the better lizard within that big fibreglass casing. And this is nothing new, and it is the Doctor’s modus operandi. But is it a bit undramatic that he basically wins with the argument, “just leave ‘em, mate, they’re not worth it”? As Doctor Who’s format can’t stretch to Threads, and blow up the world at tea time on BBC 1, aren’t such stories always going to have to end with a whimper?

  1. If the whole thing is struggling to get to a satisfactory conclusion, can you just have a spaceship sweep in and whisk the bad guy away at the last minute?

Sure, you can. Would have improved The Hunt for Red October no end. Though of course it had no Hostile Action Displacement System to add a moment of forced levity in the final minutes. Silly old Doctor, leaving the motor running and accidentally causing a continuity reference. Although when you start mining The Krotons for plot points, perhaps ripping off old Hollywood films doesn’t seem so bad.

13. Is there any excuse for the Cold War play set?

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1964 had Dalekmania. If 2013 had Cold War mania, I must have slept through it. But that  didn’t stop the BBC from releasing the Cold War play set! A flimsy cardboard construction which when complete, vividly recreated the claustrophobic atmosphere above the good ship Nykortny or whatever it was called. For at least as long as it stood up, which was quite a few minutes.

The ultimate swizz was that although the box sported photos of lovely looking Matt Smith and Ice Warrior figures, neither was included in this sad little set. Instead, you got a lone naked Skaldak, not actually seen in full in the episode itself! At least it cleared up any lingering curiosity about Martian genitalia. Like Ken dolls everywhere, poor mighty General Skaldak’s manhood was nowhere to be seen. Well, to be fair, that war was very, very cold.

LINK TO The Two Doctors: Both set in the 1980s.

NEXT TIME: It’s another underwater menace in The Underwater Menace.

Illness, inadequacy and Vincent and the Doctor (2010)

vincent

Every so often, Doctor Who scores a creative contributor who pulls the show slightly off course. You may have justifiably expected Richard Curtis, writer, producer and director of many classic UK romcoms, to have produced merger of our favourite show and his previous work. Who Actually perhaps. Or Four Doctors and a Funeral. He brings with him a reputation for quick fire humour, fish out of water heroes, unlikely love matches and conspicuous use of pop music.

There are bits of all that going on in Vincent and the Doctor, but in the end, Curtis produces something much more contemplative and sober than his usual fare, although just as sentimental. He uses a story about post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh (Tony Curran, a very Scottish actor for a Dutch artist) to illustrate how useless the Doctor (bandy Matt Smith) is when dealing with any of the personal, earthly concerns of day to day life. In this way, it’s a little like its Series Five running mate The Lodger, but where that episode indulged in some Curtis-like light comedy at the Doctor’s hopelessness in dealing with everyday life, Vincent and the Doctor shows how inadequate he is when dealing with an individual’s personal demons.

In Van Gogh’s case, that means his mental illness. It’s never named, though the highs and lows Vincent experiences seem to suggest bi-polar. (His ability to hear colours is not a side effect, though. It suggests he had synaesthesia). Vincent and the Doctor doesn’t shy away from showing Vincent’s problems on screen, as the show had done in the past; only a few episodes previously Winston Churchill’s depression was left unmentioned in Victory and the Daleks. Nor is it a character footnote in an otherwise standard Doctor Who runaround. It’s something Vincent must deal with before the story can be resolved. It’s intrinsic – a threat, as potent as any monster, to overcome.

The monster of this week, at least corporeally, is the Krafayis, a more successful space chicken than the last one the series experimented with in Arc of Infinity. Aside from the odd glimpse here and there, the Krafayis is budget-savingly invisible to all but Van Gogh. It would have been too gauche to make it a big, black dog, but the implication is clear. An invisible monster which only Van Gogh can see is the manifestation of his personal depression.

It’s the Doctor who first diagnoses the Krafayis, by using a comedy tech jacket with a handy rear vision mirror. It is he who sets up the confrontation with it at the church, but he proves hopeless and either capturing, reasoning or fighting the creature. It’s Van Gogh himself who has to tackle the birdy menace and finally skewer it on his own easel. Vincent has to face and defeat his demons himself. The Doctor is there to carry his paint box and look interesting.

The Doctor flounders when dealing with the Krafayis, and also with Van Gogh’s depression. The episode has two pivotal scenes exploring this.

The first is when, upon realising that the Doctor and Amy’s (Karen Gillan) visit is temporary, Vincent retreats to his room, distraught. The Doctor comes in to try and cheer him up and basically encourage him to carry on, but Van Gogh’s distress is too powerful. He cries and screams at the Doctor with such vehemence that it forces the Doctor from the room, defeated. This Time Lord’s got no defence against the unbearable torment of Vincent’s anguish.

The second moment is when a recovered Van Gogh sits down to paint the church, and the Doctor chooses his moment to directly address Vincent’s mental illness. But Van Gogh quietly silences the Doctor mid-sentence:

DOCTOR: It seems to me… depression is a very complex…
VINCENT: Shush. I’m working. 

Quite right too. No-one wants to hear the Doctor opine on depression. That would be a terribly mawkish part of the episode, doomed to fall clunkily on the floor. Curtis makes the right choice by allowing Vincent to speak for the audience and say, “Hush now. You stick to the sci-fi.”

Because he’s good at the sci-fi and that’s about to become useful. In an unusual structural quirk, the Krafayis is defeated a bit earlier than usual, at the end of the second act. The third act is where the Doctor and Amy decide to take Van Gogh to Musée d’Orsay in 2010, to show him a blockbuster exhibition of his work. There, a helpful gallery guide (Bill Nighy, a very British art expert for a French museum) explains that his work will eventually be celebrated as that of the greatest artist the world has ever known. In one of the show’s greatest ever scenes – one that’s uniquely Doctor Who – Van Gogh is moved to tears, finally validated, finally celebrated. The Doctor can’t deal with mental illness, but he at least has a time machine.

And strangely enough, in this moment, which finally shows us why this story had to be a Doctor Who episode, it becomes more like a Richard Curtis film than ever before. It’s partly the presence of Nighy – a frequent Curtis collaborator – partly the sudden arrival of an anthemic pop song by Athlete, and partly the big moment of emotion by the story’s hero. It’s sentiment writ large, in a way which Doctor Who has rarely pulled off before. Only if you add a frantic race to the airport, a heart-rending speech and a last minute decision by Amy to actually stay and marry Vincent could it be more Notting Hill.

If there’s a slight misstep, it’s at the end. The Doctor and Amy return Vincent to his time, forcing a second farewell scene. Then, they return excitedly to the Musée d’Orsay and Amy expects to see a slew of new paintings, prompted by proving to Vincent of his future adulation. Instead, the Doctor has to break it to her that Vincent’s timeline stayed largely unaltered and his suicide at the young age of 37 still occurred. The Doctor’s confident that whatever happened, they have added to the pile of good things in the artist’s life.

Geez, I hope he’s right. It would monumentally suck if he finally was driven out of his senses by, oh I don’t know, a mind-blowing trip into the future?

LINK TO Time and the Rani: They share the same title structure. And very little else.

NEXT TIME:  Hello, you stupid old man. It’s back to the South Pole for Twice Upon a Time.

Icons, iconoclasm and Victory of the Daleks (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnny, me and The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People (2011)

rebelfl

ME: OK Johnny. The Rebel Flesh etc, right?

JOHNNY: Sure thing. Let’s go.

As The Verve once sang, “I’m a million different people from one day to the next.” Which version of you is reading this? The relaxing at home version? The commuting from work version? The killing time when you should be doing other things version?

The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People has something to say about the creation of different versions of ourselves. In this story, the versions are made out of a programmable goop called flesh. But anyone who’s active on social media creates digital versions of themselves all the time. What, after all, is Johnny Spandrell, if not my own digital avatar? (Hopefully he won’t take gluey white form and run amok trying to kill me with acid) (JOHNNY: Ha ha ha. No, of course not.)

What, then, of the two versions we get of the Doctor (a thoughtful Matt Smith) here? I don’t mean his Time Lord and Ganger versions, but the two very different versions we get in relation to the rights of these duplicated almost people. The Gangers are normally the plug, play and throw away copies of Morpeth-Jetsan’s crew of acid farmers, but have been brought to independent life by a Frankenstein-esque lightning bolt to a conducting rod atop a spooky old castle. For most of this story, the Doctor argues for their right to live – that they are legitimate, sentient beings. (JOHNNY: Too right!)

But at the end of the story, the Doctor reveals that companion Amy (Karen Gillan) is also a flesh avatar. This one, he can’t suffer to live, so he liquifies her with his sonic screwdriver. Why one rule for them and another for her? Perhaps in order to rescue the real Amy, he can’t allow a potential spy on board the TARDIS (JOHNNY: so drop her off somewhere safe and secure, whydonttya?). Or perhaps as the 22nd century Gangers represent the genesis of this technology, he needs to ensure the timeline which eventually leads to Ganger Amy stays intact. (JOHNNY: Pah! Timey wimey whippet shit!)

Ganger Amy’s transformation into a puddle is further bad news for Rory (Arthur Darvill), on what has already been a trying day at the office. Throughout this adventure, he was duped into a friendship with Ganger Jennifer (Sarah Smart), who turned out to be the only truly bloodthirsty one among them. He spent a long time trying to be the sympathetic voice for these synthetic people, but that girl gone done him wrong, by turning out to be a bad ‘un all along. Perhaps that’s why he doesn’t speak up for Ganger Amy when the time comes, in the same way he tried to for Jen. (JOHNNY: Hey, who gets the unfortunate job of having to mop faux Amy up off the TARDIS floor? Bet the Doctor wishes there was a handy Ganger hanging around now!)

Of the other factory workers, the most interesting is boss woman Miranda Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy). Cleaves is the one who starts the trouble with the Gangers when she electrocutes one on impulse. But she and her Ganger are the ones who quickly realise that any conflict between the two identical teams is useless. They stop warmongering and settle into a wry commentary on events. When the original Cleaves runs into the room with the electrocuting whatsit, her Ganger looks wearily at her and sighs: “You see, that is just so typically me.” (JOHNNY: Well. when you’re reduced this quickly to quoting Britney Spears songs, you know the game must be up.)

It’s an early indicator that Cleaves is too sensible to pursue a battle with the human originals for long. When Ganger Jen is on the warpath, Ganger Cleaves simply can’t be bothered with it anymore, particularly once she’s learned that she’s picked up her original self’s brain tumor. She realises the empty rhetoric of “us and them” as the tired refrain of those on a path to self-destruction. “I’ve had it with this,” she declares, at a late stage in the story when we’d normally be expecting tensions to escalate again. “What’s the point in this ridiculous war?” It’s particularly shrewd characterisation. Anyone who’s smart enough to rise to a leadership position isn’t going to embark on some murderous campaign. If this story is a homage to all those base under siege epics of the Troughton era, then it’s clever enough to avoid those stories’ most illogical trope. (JOHNNY: Yup. Those base commanders were nearly always batshit crazy. Who put them in charge?)

The fact that Cleaves, Jimmy (Mark Bonnar) and Dicken (Leon Vickers) all turn out to have sensible, fair-minded Gangers also helps avoid another potential plot snare. Why are so many doubles in sci-fi stories evil? Why should perfectly reasonable, pleasant people produce duplicates who are up to no good? Again, I’d like to think wee Johnny Spandrell is as decent a fella as me, and if he did turn out to be a psychopathic monster, what would that say about me? (JOHNNY: Y’know what? I bet you’d turn out to be the monster. You’d be forever getting me to run errands, clean up the place and tap out a weekly blog post, while you sat back and ate chips or something. I might murder you just because you were being an arse!)

What, for instance, does it say about Jen? Why is it that among the Morpeth-Jetsan team, she’s the only one whose Ganger goes postal? It’s a slight narrative misstep that we don’t find out why the process treats her differently to everyone else. The only hint of latent violence we get from her is when she playfully pushes Ganger Buzzer (Marshall Lancaster) into a vat of acid, so perhaps that’s meant to indicate her hidden, darker side. But what a dark side it must be, because unlike her colleagues, she turns into (as Ganger Cleaves says) the stuff of nightmares; head on a tentacle, clinging to the ceiling. She’s so broken inside she mutates into the sort of gallumphing hybrid monster we thought we’d seen the back of after The Lazarus Experiment. (JOHNNY: Oh, must you? I’d blocked that out!)

This story is not just saying that our self-created avatars are eventually going to reach the point that they’ll want equal rights. It’s also saying, be careful about creating them in the first place. This cloning stuff never works out well. But there’s also the idea that artificial intelligence is eventually going to outthink us, partially because it knows us so well. It’s a fear as old as Frankenstein; that when we start playing God by creating new versions of ourselves, we’ll create much more trouble than we bargained for.

Meanwhile, if Johnny turns on me, I’ll be sure to let you know. Why here he comes now with a *argh gurgle choke bleargh….*  (JOHNNY: Don’t worry. I was always the brains of this operation.)

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: when the Doctor answers the holocall from Jimmy’s son, he does so with a hearty “Hello Adam!”, not as the subtitles insist, “Hello Madame!” That would be weird.

LINK TO The Sun Makers: corporate behemoths.

NEXT TIME… Like a model, only with talking and thinking. We drop The Pilot.

Surprise, spin-offs and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012)

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Six surprising things that happen in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and the further adventures that could spring from them.

  1. The Doctor assembles a gang.

In 2012, Avengers (no, not the cool ones, the Marvel ones) were assembling to stage a loud and colourful assault on the big screen. Naturally those Avengers are all muscly, spandex-clad hotties ready to kick some bad guy ass. And this is, remember, the season where Doctor Who aimed to mimic those big popcorn films, even to the extent of this episode’s title riffing off Snakes on a Plane. So it’s kind of refreshing that when the Doctor (not so muscly, thankfully not spandex clad Matt Smith) tries to go all Hollywood and assemble a gang for his own adventure, he chooses a miscellany of misfits: an ancient Egyptian queen, a big game hunter, the Ponds and their Dad. By the time they get menaced by some dinosaurs and run down a corridor en masse, it’s time for the opening title sequence. You know from that point on, this one’s going to be a rollercoaster ride.

Big Finish pitch one: The Doctor’s Gang. On the way home from the Silurian Ark, the Doctor, Nefi, Riddell, the Ponds and their Dad, get up to all sorts of hijinks. And then River Song turns up! 4 disc box set.

  1. The future’s not all white.

The Doctor gets sent on a mission, not by UNIT or the Time Lords or River Song asking him to pick up some milk on the way home, but by people we’ve never met before: the Indian Space Agency. Suddenly, Doctor Who seems to be taking account of our shifting world order, and posits a future where India is the predominant power in space. We meet calm and pragmatic Indira (Sunetra Sarker) who, despite the dual misfortunes of lacking a rack or a surname, is the leader of the ISA and a kind of stand-in Brigadier (and we all recall how he dealt with Silurians). There’s a sense that the Doctor and Indira have a mutual respect for each other which might have been the basis for a whole other series of adventures.

Big Finish pitch two: Indian Space Agency. Indira, “ISA Worker” and the rest of the ISA staff battle new threats to Earth with their brilliant, but not entirely reliable scientific adviser. On the way, they’ll get surnames and motivations. 3 x 4 disc box set.

  1. Bad guys get the girl

Much is made of the flirty tension between old school hunter Riddell (Rupert Graves) and even older school monarch Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele). Throughout, Riddell’s patronizing and chauvinistic remarks are effectively put down by Nefi. If there’s a spark between then, it expresses itself in threats of violence:

RIDDELL: I shall put you across my knee and spank you!

NEFERTITI: Try, and I’ll snap your neck in a heartbeat!

He’s clearly interested in her, but she thinks he’s the dinosaur on this spaceship. How then to explain how at the story’s end, she ends up emerging from his tent, hair untethered, brandishing a gun? How did this leering buffoon get to score with this smart, powerful woman, who clearly wasn’t having a bar of him? (And don’t they know what happens to characters who shag in Doctor Who?) If anything at all was going to happen between them, it should have been her taking him back to Egypt to keep him as her concubine.

And then there’s Solomon (David Bradley) and his thinly veiled threats to sexually abuse Nefi once he has her on his ship. “I will break you in with immense pleasure,” he hisses at her, having pinioned her to the floor with his space crutch. It’s unpleasant, to say the least, but it’s supplanted by the sheer bewildering wrongness of putting a smart, sexy, capable woman on screen and then a. having her threatened with rape and b. having her run off with her harasser. That really sits badly among this otherwise cheery joyride of an episode.

BBC3 Documentary pitch: “It’s stopped being fun, Doctor”. Janet Fielding, Germaine Greer and Christel Dee decode the sexual politics of Doctor Who over its long history. 250 x 30min eps.

  1. The Silurians get a confusing addition to their backstory

So the Silurians, who we previously thought of as Earthbound creatures, can build a space ark the size of Canada, complete with an ocean to power it. But it’s also one which needs two family members to pilot it and it has computer displays written in English. And still with all this technology at their disposal, they couldn’t predict that the moon wouldn’t collide with the earth. Nor could they work out how to repel an invasion by one man and two comedy robots.

BBC Books pitch: “The Discontinuity Guide – Silurian Edition.” All you ever wanted to know about this imaginary universe and how it all makes sense, really it does. Illustrated hardcover, 250 pages, full colour, RRP £100.

  1. The Doctor gets his… Unlikeliest. Companion. Ever.

When you’re updating your list of official Doctor Who companions (I do mine weekly. It currently includes Captain Yates, Courtney Woods and those bats from the TV Movie), don’t forget to include Brian Pond (Mark Williams). For at the end of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, we learn that he joins the Doctor for a series of wacky and occasionally hand illustrated adventures. Personally, it sounds like a hoot. Sign me up. I hope each episode starts with a new lightbulb being changed the TARDIS and includes a cheeky joke about his testicles. Brian’s, I mean, not the Doctor’s. After all, his (as we now know) are optional.

Big Finish pitch three: “A Pond? My Soul! – The Continuing Adventures of Brian Pond” Brian and the Doctor continue their sight seeing trip around the galaxy, with hilarious results! Along the way, they’ll bump into the Axons, the Mandrels and a deadly new breed of Navarinos. 5 x 4 disc box sets.

  1. It’s nice one minute, nasty the next.

The Doctor’s on a bit of rollercoaster ride himself this episode. One minute he’s cheery and childlike, boasting about his Christmas list. But once Solomon turns up to spoil his fun, he turns into a dark vengeance wreaker. In a rare display of ruthlessness, he blows up Solomon’s ship with him in it, coldly referencing the slaughter of the ship’s original inhabitants as justification.

Actually, the whole story’s cheery and childlike one minute, then dark and violent the next. It’s not just the Doctor’s retribution or Solomon’s creepy abduction of Nefi, it’s the whole tone of the thing, which is perhaps best summed up by the moment when Solomon shoots Tricey the Triceratops, which had, up until that point, been the most joyous and kid-friendly element in the story (Mrs Spandrell won’t watch the episode because of that moment).

It’s an unsettling feeling, to be led to think that you’re embarking on one of Doctor Who’s trademark “enjoyable romps” only to then be confronted by mass murder, random acts of violence and the hint of sexual sadism. Still, I’m sure it’s only a one-off.

BBC One pitch: “Doctor Who” An exciting adventure in time and space by Chris Chibnall. Early evening slot on Saturdays. 10 x 50 mins episodes.

LINK TO… World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. Both star David Bradley.

NEXT TIME… medieval misfits! We’re beset by The King’s Demons.

BUT FIRST…. Another in the (very) occasional series of Random Extras, by way of a side trip to Shada.

Mateship, maleness and Closing Time (2011)

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As a one sentence pitch, “The Lodger, but with Cybermen” is pretty good. Actually, why stop there? Let’s remake Black Orchid with Cybermen. Or The Krotons but with Weeping Angels. Or remake The Time Monster with… nah, let’s never do that.

For a light-hearted, late season cheapie episode, The Lodger looms large over Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who. He often talks of his affection for it, and Closing Time and later The Caretaker are attempts to replicate its breezy comic charm.

Both of those later stories seek to eke more mileage out of the Doctor’s clumsy but endearing attempts to fit into modern life as we know it. All three involve, to lesser or greater extents, the Doctor getting a job. In Closing Time, he’s employed (briefly) by a department store to fool around in the toy department, amusing children. This fits like a glove to Matt Smith’s Doctor, who frequently demonstrates his childlike enthusiasm for having fun, despite the growing chaos around him.

The other element repeated from The Lodger is bumbling everyman Craig (James Corden) and his natural inferiority to the Doctor, in all things. Last time we saw him, Craig was struggling to make it with a girl. This time, he’s struggling with being a new Dad (it’s The Lodger, but with a baby).

Naturally, the Doctor is better at this than him. He speaks baby and can stop a baby crying with a look (“Can you teach me to do that?” Craig says, echoing new parents everywhere). He can project a starscape onto a ceiling, proving that his sonic screwdriver comes with After Effects installed.

So the Doctor is presented as this contradictory mix; hopeless at some mundane everyday tasks, but brilliant at others. Crucially, he’s brilliant at the things Craig is not. For instance, Craig can’t emulate the Doctor’s effortless ability to get people to like him and share information with him. “I bet you excrete some sort of gas that makes people love you,” grumbles Craig. Everything about their relationship is about how one of them is better than the other.

This imbalance is interesting, because the Doctor and Craig’s relationship is about mateship. The Doctor being involved in male friendship is surprisingly rare in Doctor Who. When I talked about The Lodger, I drew the comparison between the eleventh Doctor and Craig combo, and the second Doctor and Jamie. It still holds true, because these are the only instances of the Doctor having a genuine male friendship. Yes, he has had other male companions, but in every case they have been adjuncts to the Doctor’s relationship with a female companion.

(An honourable exception here may be the first Doctor and Steven, but they were not buddies in the way 11/Craig and 2/Jamie were. I suppose we might also consider the third Doctor’s friendship with the Brigadier, but that feels more like a professional relationship than two mates hanging out together for laughs.)

This is kind of how it works in real life. Imbalance is an essential by-product of mateship. Or to put it another way, no two mates are born equal. Blokes, don’t we all have that friend who’s smarter, better looking, altogether more impressive than us? And yet we still like to hang out together. We’re all Craig to someone else’s Doctor.

So that imbalance between Craig and the Doctor rings true. But Craig gets his own back. He might stuff up his attempt to rescue the Doctor from the Cybermen with a barcode scanner and thus end up encased in a Cyber carapace, but he saves the day when his paternal instincts kick in at the sound of his baby’s cries. “He blows up the Cybermen with love,” writer Gareth Roberts said on Doctor Who Confidential. Human relationships being a mystery to the Doctor, he couldn’t have pulled off that trick.

(We’re back to parenthood again, by the way, that particular obsession of Series Six. So many stories this season of fathers and the lengths they’ll go to for their kids. And interestingly in all of them – Captain Avery, Jimmy, Alex and Craig – are all worried about their adequacy as Dads. Craig’s at least is a little less angsty – just the familiar haplessness of a new Dad. I’ve been through it twice, Craig, so here’s my advice: buy a tumble dryer, a pair of ear plugs, a bottle of whisky and try to keep up.)

It’s not just mateship which is on display in Closing Time but also maleness. The Doctor has his eccentricities dialled up a little for this story, emphasising his awkwardness in social situations (he can’t, for instance, work out how to make a social call on someone). But he’s no Time Lord version of Sheldon Cooper. He makes friends easily with everyone in the shop for instance. Craig is your typical bumbling father, but he’s also a bit clueless at basic domestic duties like shopping and cleaning. But they’re both brave, protective and heroic and they both clearly adore each other.

In the pair of them, we see lots of ways to be men, most of them viewed next to the passionless Cybermen and through the lens of madcap comedy. And inevitably, where two men are running about with a baby, heads start to turn. It’s The Lodger, but with poof jokes. The jokes about them being a couple are fun, but in a way they also undermine what is nice about their relationship. They indicate that any close relationship between two men is indistinguishable from a romance between them, which is a bit old fashioned. Hard to imagine that joke working between two female characters.

Still, maybe we’ll find out. We’re only months away from our first female Doctor, which is great, but it does mean it will be some time before we get to see how the Doctor deals with mateship again. Which given how rarely the series explores it, is a shame… but given that the series has never explored a female Doctor, one I’m prepared to live without for a while.

But don’t the Cybermen seem a little out of place here, like they’re treading on another monster’s property? Surely a department store is where we’d expect to find mannequins coming to life? C’mon Chibbers, old mate, let’s remake Closing Time, but with Autons.

FORGOTTEN DEATH: Let’s spare a moment for poor dead Shona (Seroca Davis). Because none of her co-workers do. It’s all jokes and gossip and when’s my next tea break. As heartless as a Cyberman.

LINK TO The Invasion of Time: both have scenes with clothes racks in them!

NEXT TIME… I’m happy, I hope you’re happy too. C’mon, crack a Smile.