Tag Archives: gallifrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capaldi, Moffat and Heaven Sent (2015)

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Tom Baker, at the height of his Doctordom, used to advocate for a Doctor Who which he starred in solo, with no need for a companion. He saw, I think it’s fair to say, the potential for him to hold an audience’s attention solo. Probably through the force of his own personality, but it’s not an unreasonable proposition – as The Deadly Assassin proved – that the Doctor as a dominant central character can hold a story’s narrative together on his own.

And since then, we’ve seen Doctors Tennant and Smith in companion-lite stories, and the model has worked just fine. But always these have remained ensemble pieces, with our solitary Doctor interacting with a guest cast . It’s not until Heaven Sent we get a story which is not just companion-lite, but everything-but-the-Doctor-lite. It’s the sort of episode Tom Baker must have dreamt of, back in day.

Heaven Sent is many things, not least of which an extraordinary vote of confidence in Peter Capaldi. Never before has one actor been entrusted with keeping a Doctor Who audience captivated all by himself. But it’s also a case of showrunner Steven Moffat continuing to experiment with the show’s form. He’s also, I suspect, keeping himself interested, even challenging himself with episodes like this one and Listen which in essence ask the same question that The Deadly Assassin did… Which is, can we pull this radical idea off?

So Heaven Sent is about those two men, as much as it’s about the Doctor deducing his way out of his own bespoke torture chamber. Let’s start with…

Capaldi

Of all the actors to play the Doctor, Capaldi comes to it with the most distinguished resume. Only Eccleston I think could challenge him for pre-Who actorly kudos. Capaldi’s experience is written all over that well lined face of his and he brings all of that to bear on his performance of the Doctor.

He can be the subtlest of Doctors; I remember watching Deep Breath  for the first time and being impressed with what he could do with the slightest gesture or the smallest flick of an eye. If his performance has been painted with ever broader brushstrokes since then, we might put this down to the need to develop a bigger performance to match Doctor Who’s pace; eyes become wider, laughs more extravagant, snarls more ferocious.

Capaldi is also an actor who moves with precision. In Heaven Sent, look at the considered way he picks up a spade or lets sand run though his fingers. Compare this to the brio of David Tennant, sailing into a scene, coat billowing. Or the teeter totter movement Matt Smith made his signature move. Capaldi’s careful choice of gesture and gait is an important character note; his is a Doctor who considers, who internalises and who wastes no energy on wild flailing about.

His voice is also distinctive, and crucial to the foreboding atmosphere of Heaven Sent, much of which is told in voice over. The decision to keep his Scots accent (don’t send him to that Chameleon spaceship!) is an interesting one, and one which, along with his initially close cropped hair, tied him closely to his other famous TV role, Malcolm Tucker. Luckily though, it’s a terrific voice, loaded with gravitas and it adds to the doom laden feeling of this episode.

These days, the ghost of Malcolm Tucker has faded almost entirely. Capaldi’s new, more Doctorly, costume has helped that. At the beginning of his second season, he was wearing check trousers like Troughton, and how he has a burgundy frock coat ala Tom Baker. All this, plus his hair has now grown into a Pertwee-esque bouffant. He now not only looks like a classic Doctor, he’s deliberately imitating them, right down to his (thankfully unseen) question mark underwear.

All this gushing is just to point out that Capaldi’s Doctor has developed into someone really interesting. Still spikily bad tempered, but with a growing sense of wry humour. A Doctor who looks and sounds the part. Played by an actor with care and precision. It’s why there was no doubt he could hold our attention solo for 45 minutes, because he’s utterly compelling.

Moffat

To make a Doctor solo episode work, Moffat pulls a range of narrative tricks. The problem he faces is that the Doctor has to have some dialogue to explain what’s going on, but he has no one to speak to. As noted, there’s the voice over, turning the Doctor into a commentator on his own story and giving the impression that the viewer’s allowed access to his innermost thoughts.

Moffat also gives the Doctor two people to talk to while he’s alone. The first is his unseen imprisoner, at whom he rails and shouts threats. But soon his attention switches to the monstrous Veil (Jamie Reid Quarrel), a creature plucked from his own childhood fears. Either way, the Doctor now has someone to speculate about the plot in front of. This exposition doesn’t lack an audience; in effect the viewer takes the place of the absent companion.

Then there’s the ‘storm room’, a mental stronghold which sounds suspiciously like Sherlock’s mind palace, and which enables the Doctor to talk to an hallucination of Clara. The storm room is where he retreats to at moments of mortal peril, which is very handy. It gets Moffat out of the need for a companion to ask, ‘how did you get out of that one?’ So between these three tricks – talking to himself (through voiceover), talking to the monster and talking in a dream sequence, Moffat deftly manouevers around the lack of supporting characters.

Heaven Sent is more than just Moffat pulling off some impressive narrative tricks, though. It’s also about finding new things to do with this show, in his sixth year of running it. He wants to keep the show fresh, of course, but I think it’s also about his own need to remain challenged and engaged by the show. There’s a sense, in the later years of his reign, of Moffat needing to stretch the show’s format further and further in order to keep himself amused. Luckily, I think the show’s the stronger for it.

There’s still some familiar Moffat tropes: hard drives that save people, an entire ‘bespoke’ situation designed around the Doctor, a twist in the final reel (and what a twist. When that remarkable closing sequence showing multiple subsequent repetitions of the Doctor’s quest from beginning to end, and the penny dropped as to what the long term effect was, I must confess to giving the Moff a quiet round of applause for the sheer cleverness of it).

Still, this feels startlingly new, while still managing to recall that Deadly Assassin by placing a solo Doctor in a trippy, dream world trap of Time Lord making. Plus there’s the added layer of meaning now that we know that Moffat was attempting to leave Doctor Who at the end of this season, that the Doctor himself stands as an avatar for the writer, trapped in a puzzle box of a TV series desperately trying to escape.

That’s what Heaven Sent says to me. One man liberated from the series’ standard format, seizing the opportunity to show how extraordinary he and his Doctor can be. And another man fighting against that format, to keep himself motivated and his writing vital, all the time with one eye on the exit, even if he has to bash his way through a wall of stone to get to it, one punch at a time.

LINK TO The Faceless Ones: duplication processes.

NEXT TIME: Which one was your favourite? The Giant Robot? Or was it Planet of the Dead?

Legend, revisioning and The Deadly Assassin (1976)

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Part One: Australia

Occasionally, I’m going to write about the peculiarities of watching Doctor Who in Australia. I grew up watching Doctor Who in the late seventies and throughout the eighties. This meant tuning in to ABC TV – then the only station available nationwide – of a weeknight (sometimes Monday-Thursday, sometimes Monday-Friday) for The Goodies at 6pm and Doctor Who at 6:30pm. This is a shared cultural experience for Australians of my vintage, this regular post-school, pre-dinner treat. It’s our version of the “Saturdayness” experienced by UK fans. It’s historical potency is such that when ABC repeated the entire run of available episodes from 2003-5, it was back in that vicinity, at 6pm weekdays.

What this meant was repeats and loads of them. UK viewers were starved of Doctor Who re-runs, and so engaged in a black market of off air recordings from down under. It’s a funny inversion, which meant that pre the VHS releases, Australian Whoheads were more familiar with the series’ past than UK fans. We got Pertwees and even a few Troughtons. But mostly we got Tom Baker, and specifically 4A to 4Z, Robot to The Invasion of Time. Over and over again.

Well, not quite. Because two stories were routinely omitted: The Brain of Morbius and The Deadly Assassin. These stories had been rated as ‘adult’ and so couldn’t be screened in the early evening timeslot. Had you not known, you wouldn’t have missed The Brain of Morbius, but skipping The Deadly Assassin gave the series an odd dislocation. The previous story, The Hand of Fear, ended with the Doctor dropping Sarah back home, saying it was impossible to take her to Gallifrey with him. Suddenly in the next episode, he’s alone on a jungle planet making friends with Leela. Well, who wouldn’t? But what was so urgent that he needed to dump Sarah so unceremoniously?

Anyway, we did eventually get to see Morbius and The Deadly Assassin in 1987 (thanks again broadwcast.org), by which time it couldn’t possibly have lived up to its reputation as one of classics. Personally, I could see the rubber crocodile and the plastic spider, but not what all the fuss was about. But it was my last ‘new’ Tom Baker story, so it sticks in my memory for that reason at least.

Part Two: Gallifrey

But it sticks in fandom’s collective memory to a far greater extent. This is a mythic story, full of firsts. For instance, it’s our first view of the Doctor’s home planet Gallifrey, a world of emerald green vaulted chambers seemingly carved out of rock. Like America, it has a President, a CIA and a televised assassination. Like the Catholic church, it has cardinals and men in flowing robes. Like mediaeval Britain, it has castellans and a Lord Chancellor. It is a place of immense technology but also of state sanctioned torture. And it feels oddly parochial, with its insipid TV presenters, doddery old men and incompetent policemen. In fact, it feels like home.

This earthly familiarity was famously criticised at the time of its UK broadcast, in a ranty review by Jan Vincent-Rudski, the closing line of which asked in strident capitals WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO? (That always makes me smile). As befits a mythic story, the review itself has become part of The Deadly Assassin’s legacy. It’s often seen as an example of how fans’ tastes change, as this once derided story is now widely praised. But it also shows how fans’ tastes mature over time, as they eventually put aside inconsequential concerns about continuity and focus on more lasting qualities such as writing, direction and production.

But back to that parochialism; that accusation that the Time Lords of The Deadly Assassin are not the god-like super beings of previous stories, but familiar human archetypes complete with earthly shortcomings such as pomposity, foolishness and vanity. That accusation is spot on, and thank goodness for it. What would a story set on a planet of superbeings be like? Pretty dull, I expect. Time Lords are, in fact, elevated versions of ourselves, just as the Doctor is a kind of much enhanced version of us. When I stop to think about the affinity between the Doctor and Earth, and when we see it reflected in the Time Lords, I see an obvious plot point that I’m sure the series will get around to one day; that the Time Lords are somehow descended from the human race. You read it here first! (Moffat, call me, we’ll talk).

Part Three: Part Three

Here’s another thing about The Deadly Assassin; it has a superfluous episode. That’s Part Three, famous for being mostly set in the dream world of the Matrix and consisting mainly of the Doctor being hunted down by the Assassin. I know it’s superfluous because on this viewing I skipped it and went straight from Two to Four, and it did the story no harm at all. (Don’t worry, I didn’t cheat. I watched Part Three at the end.)

In Old Who, this sort of episode – the “let’s take a break from the main story” episode – was usually an excuse to try something new. The Daleks’ Master Plan, for instance, had a comedy Christmas day episode. Planet of the Spiders has an episode which is an extended chase scene. Deadly Assassin 3 is no different; producer Philip Hinchcliffe wanted to experiment with an episode made entirely on film (it didn’t end up like that, but it is mainly all shot on location).

But where this ep is different is that it’s usually praised as an inventive experiment, rather than discounted as a lazy indulgence as those other examples sometimes are. And that’s down to two things. First, it’s stylishly directed and tightly edited by David Maloney. Secondly, it’s so unlike anything else in Doctor Who; a physical and mental battle to the death between two men. It’s visceral stuff and ends with a watery strangulation, complete with freeze frame. That’s enough to get you banned in Australia.

Part Four: The Master

And amongst everything else, the Master returns. Having only recently randomed Terror of the Autons, I was reminded that The Deadly Assassin is effectively Robert Holmes’ second go at introducing the Master. He’s a character which could have easily been given a standard Time Lord regeneration (incidentally, why doesn’t Goth regenerate? Or any of the Time Lord guards who get shot? Shh! Look over there!) but Holmes makes him withered and decrepit. A smart choice which pushes the character in a new and lasting direction; from here on in the Master’s ability to cheat death and his quest to hang onto life become his enduring characteristics.

Holmes pulls a few old tricks though. As in Terror of the Autons, the Master kills an innocent as a kind of greetings card. And he allies himself with someone to do the dirty work for him. But unlike the Delgado version, there’s none of that sly Master charm. This is just a snarling goggle-eyed fiend. Instead of the stylish Nehru suit, there’s only rags. There’s very little of the old Master left.

Which is what I think Holmes wanted. He takes one of the icons of the Pertwee era and completely reinvents it. As Who Lore goes, Holmes was never happy bringing back old monsters and early in his tenure as script editor he struggled with Daleks and Cybermen. Here he allows an old enemy to return, but on his terms. And it’s difficult to read his venom spitting, subterranean dwelling troll of a Master as anything but a repudiation of the Letts/Dicks era’s version. You got it wrong, Holmes seems to say. The Doctor’s dark mirror image isn’t a smooth talking, dark suited man-about-cosmos. He’s a vile, repellent ghoul, consumed with hate.

It’s better this way, says Holmes. Just like Gallifrey is better off as a corrupt, overblown oligarchy than a home on the clouds for superbeings. And by the way – you don’t even need a companion. That’s what The Deadly Assassin is about; tearing down the icons of the series and rebuilding them.

But the show can’t always be like this. Next week it’s back to Doctor-Girl-Planet-Monster-Problem to solve. And it doesn’t feel like a step backwards; in fact it’s a relief. In that sense, The Deadly Assassin does its job a little too well.

LINKS to The Armageddon Factor. Both feature black clad villains lurking in gloomy hideouts. And both reference the Doctor’s time at the academy.

NEXT TIME: You know, I sometimes wonder if your friend is quite right in the head. It’s off to the thirteenth moon of Jupiter for Revenge of the Cybermen.