Tag Archives: historical

The times, the customs and The Romans (1965)

romans

When Doctor Who started, it was a grim little series. Its first story had cavemen beating each other to death. Its second showed the aftermath of nuclear war. But one year in, and it lightened up considerably and could even playfully mix up genres. By story number 12, the series can tackle one of the bloodiest periods of Earth’s history with Carry On-style verve. The Romans is, famously, Doctor Who’s first comedy.

Of course, it’s only partially played for laughs. Ian (William Russell) has an awful time of it; sold into slavery, almost drowning in a galley and thrown into the circus to fight for his life. There’s not much there to chuckle at. Even the stuff played for laughs has a dark edge: Vicki (Maureen O’Brien) gets caught up in an attempt to poison Nero (Derek Francis) which, although unsuccessful, it still results in the death of servant Tigilinus (Brian Proudfoot). Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) gets chased around the palace by Nero, Benny Hill-style which might raise a smile until you remember she’s being sexually harassed. And the Doctor (William Hartnell) thinks it’s utterly hilarious that he may have inadvertently inspired Nero to burn Rome to the ground. He chuckles heartily away even though down amongst the inferno, people are dying horribly.

So as comedies go, The Romans is as black as night. It’s in good company among the Hartnell historicals like The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters, both of which mix up humour with death on an operatic scale. Even writer Dennis Spooner’s own The Time Meddler has a comedy plot punctuated with violence and rape. Makes you wonder exactly who this stuff was aimed at.

More to the point, is The Romans actually funny? I can’t say I’ve ever actually laughed at it. (My first viewing of it, via the VHS release in 1994, put me to sleep). Its jokes are pretty laboured. That unlikely gag Ian and Barbara deliver about the “fridge” is weak, but still it gets two runs. The Doctor’s employment of the emperor’s new clothes tactic to avoid having to play the lyre is very stagey. As is his comedy fight with the assassin Ascaris (Barry Jackson). Francis comes closest to making it work, but even his antics of bashing people over the head with lyres, falling over beds and absent-mindedly waving swords about is pretty tiresome.

But actually, I don’t think it matters that the comedy stylings of The Romans seem irredeemably lame. For a start, it’s impossible to tell what a 1960s audience made of this – they might have thought it was a riot. What’s important about it is that it’s another of Doctor Who’s attempts, even at this early stage of its life, to push the boundaries of what the show was capable of, to ensure that it had sufficient variety to enable longevity. Better Doctor Who comedies will follow because The Romans showed it was possible for the show to bend that far and not break. And hey, they’ll be back to killing people with acid next story.

But gee, can you imagine the reaction to this story if they’d had Twitter in 1965?

@babshair WTF are they doing to #doctorwho? Unfunny comedy antics turning the show into PANTO. BBC intent on killing it. Spooner must go! #notmydoctor

*****

The other thing The Romans does is change the dynamics of the TARDIS crew.

In an era known for decadence and hedonism, Ian and Barbara are cheekily positioned as lovers. They flirt and joke around and treat each other with gentle physical intimacy. We never see them as much as hold hands, let alone kiss. But there’s something undeniably sexy about them lounging around in their togas together.

Their friends with benefits time is interrupted by them being kidnapped and sold into slavery. So begins one of Ian’s semi-regular quests to rescue Barbara, but the absence of the Doctor and Vicki from this adventure means this plot can be viewed in isolation, and it’s purely about two lovers pulled apart by circumstance and eager to reunite. It gives their solo adventure added piquancy, which you can sense when the two finally find each other again and rush into a joyful embrace. From here on in, they’re clearly more than just friends, ready for generations to come to ship them madly.

The Doctor meanwhile is getting to know his new substitute granddaughter, Vicki. I’ve noted before that I think it was an odd decision to replace Susan with someone so similar to her, and yet O’Brien brings a greater air of independence and worldliness to the teenage girl companion than Carole Ann Ford was allowed to. And for his part, the Doctor is less paternal towards her. He sees Vicki as a co-conspirator in his schemes and a student who’ll benefit from his tutelage. Plus she’s more likely than Susan to instigate action within the story; the whole poisoning gag comes about because she’s struck out on her own and made friends with the palace poisoner. Of all people.

Whereas previously we had a TARDIS crew made up of people with protective responsibilities towards Susan – her grandfather and her teachers – now we have a crew of four friends. (Incidentally, The Romans does a great job of giving each of the four regulars a slice of the action, something the most recent series of Doctor Who struggled to do). And in its quiet way, it sets a new template for the show to follow from now on: a TARDIS crew of people who travel together because they want to, not because they have owe any responsibility to each other to do so. A cohort of genuine buddies who’ll go on holiday together, drink, dress up and fondly tease each other.

The Romans may not be very funny, but it’s loads of fun. And because it happens so early in the show’s run, it allows loads of subsequent stories to be fun too. That’s a far more valuable legacy than simply being the first Doctor Who story to crack a few gags.

LINK TO Fury from the Deep: TARDIS crew members washing up on the beach.

NEXT TIME: More trouble with the eight-legs in Arachnids in the UK.

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Moderates, radicals and Demons of the Punjab (2018)

punjab

One of the surprises brought to us by the thirteenth Doctor, as played with brains and brio by Jodie Whittaker, is that she’s less interventionist than we’ve grown to expect the Doctor to be. Often her first season has shown us circumstances where she has let events take their course, or let bad guys off the hook or otherwise not directly confronted the evils of the universe she comes across.

For instance, in Rosashe has to stand back and allow humanity’s racism to take the slow path to partial improvement. In Kerblam!, she chooses not to overthrow an exploitative corporate behemoth. In Arachnids in the UK, the spider shooter and Trump wannabe escapes unsanctioned. And in Demons of the Punjab, we are presented with a uniquely odd situation: a story in which the Doctor and her friends arrive, discover two problems: one which turns out to not be a problem at all and one which turns out to a problem they can’t solve. Then they leave.

How important is it that the Doctor is an active presence in any given story? Traditional wisdom says that as she’s the hero of the show, she should play a central, proactive role. I think that’s basically right, but as it’s the traditional wisdom, I always like to question it.

Certainly, there are instances in the past where the Doctor hasn’t been central to her own adventures. Many of the 1960s historicals saw the Doctor and his (with apologies for switching pronouns) companions swept up in events but playing no significant role in them. Stories as diverse as The Caves of Androzani and Twice upon a Time have experimented with decreasing the Doctor’s involvement in stimulating and resolving the plot. The trouble at Warriors’ Gate was sorted out when the Doctor realised he was called upon to do nothing. That it was “the right sort of nothing” doesn’t change that.

So sure – a non-interventionist Doctor is the exception rather than the rule, but it’s not unheard of. And despite how it might appear from 21st century Who, not every Doctor’s modus operandi has been to forcefully intervene in the concerns of those around them. The fifth Doctor, for instance, often trod a softer path. The second could also approach problems obliquely, avoiding direct confrontation. So it’s not as if there’s no precedent for a Doctor who plays a less dominant role in the series.

Writer Vinay Patel talked about this in an interview for the The Doctor is In podcast. When talking about the Doctor’s proactivity, or lack thereof, he positioned it as a side product of the show’s new ensemble approach. With Team TARDIS around her, she’s not always going to be the one who takes the lead, so in her character’s DNA is a tendency to let people around her call the shots.

There’s an illustrative moment of this when the Doctor wants to leave after finding out the true nature of the alien Thijarians, but her three buddies convince her to stay. It’s not a loud moment, but it’s a quiet reinforcement that the Doctor’s less of a leading force than she used to be. Whether this is to the Doctor’s detriment – because it pushes her to be more passive than her predecessors – or whether it gives us a refreshing new take on this much-interpreted character is a matter of personal preference.

But while it’s not unheard of for the Doctor to be a tangential element in her own story, it is unusual for her to also face an alien threat which is equally unimportant to the plot. The demons of the title are Thijarians, who travel around paying respect to people who die alone. They’re kind of professional mourners. Thing is, they used to be professional assassins, and that sounds altogether more interesting.

If they had indeed come to India in 1948 to assassinate Prem (Shane Zaza) because he would, in an alternative future, become a global political hero (or villain), that would have given both them, and tellingly, the Doctor, an excuse to get involved in the story. Instead, the theme of helplessness against the course of history is encapsulated in that moment when Prem is shot, and the Thijarians stand witness and the Doctor and her friends simply walk away.

Prem is shot by a posse of India loyalists led by his own brother Manish (Hamza Jeetooa). Manish represents something new in Doctor Who villainy, as introduced in Whittaker’s first series: he’s the radicalised young man. His dogma has prompted him to isolate himself from his family and align himself with dangerous people and ideas. Ultimately, it leads him to murder. It’s a particularly 21st century concern, that young men led astray will resort to acts of violence in pursuit of their perverted world view. And it’s not just a one-off; in the next episode, young factory worker Charlie will seek to commit mass murder in an expression of his “activism”. There’s something similar in the journey of smouldering racist Krasko in Rosa, and the hatred of difference he learned while in prison.

Of these depictions of good young men gone bad, Demons of the Punjab’s feels the most timely, because it’s also about borders. There are lots of Doctor Who stories about the evils of colonialism, but few which explore the troubled geo-political decision making which often goes along with it. This story shows how those decisions to apply crudely drawn borders based on religious beliefs ignore the subtleties of residence, family and tradition. Viewers in the UK, the US and Australia (among other places) are living through these concerns about borders and who gets to live on either side of them, making this as relevant a topic as the threat of radicalised young men.

It’s touchingly done too, without being cloying. Manish’s betrayal of his family feels all too feasible – the kind of thing which happens to families when politics meets religion. Umbreen’s (Amita Suman and Leena Dhingra) decision to marry her husband straddling two lands is nicely symbolic, as is the shattered watch, reminding us that some moments are frozen in our memories forever.

It’s a smart story, well told. So much so that it only emphasises how little it needs both the Doctor and the Thijarians. And it proves typical of an intriguing but uneven series of Doctor Who; one which takes us to new, fascinating places with the potential for great drama, but which is tentative about putting the Doctor at the centre of them.

LINK TO The Girl in the Fireplace: Aliens stalking historical humans.

NEXT TIME: Put your mysterious face on, it’s time to track down The Space Pirates.

Rose, Reinette and The Girl in the Fireplace (2006)

girlfire

You can tell a Steven Moffat script. The writing is full of clever ripostes and zingy one-liners, delivered at just the right moment, with just the right amount of sardonic wit. But my favourite line of dialogue from (the thankfully less grisly than it sounds) The Girl in the Fireplace is much simpler and more functional. It’s this:

ROSE: Why her?

That line comes in the middle of a standard mid-episode exposition scene, albeit in an episode with a more complex premise than most. The Doctor (David Tennant), Rose (Billie Piper) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) have discovered a spaceship in the far future, linked to a number of times and places in 18th century France. Present in each of these locations is Reinette, AKA Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles), at different stages in her life, and a cohort of clockwork androids are crossing from future to past to monitor her.

In this scene, our TARDIS crew and Reinette have cornered one of the robots and are interrogating it on what’s going on. They’ve found out that the robots have cannibalised the ship’s crew for parts (still 21st century Who’s most gruesome plot development) to repair the immobilised spaceship, and they want Reinette for a mysterious, but crucial, final component.

The pivotal question is why, out of all the people in history, do the robots want Reinette? The question must be asked, but think about Moffat’s choices about which character should give voice to it. He could give it to the Doctor, but he’s already carrying the bulk of this scene. He could choose Reinette and change the question to “why me?” It would be a perfectly understandable question for her character to ask.

Instead, he gives it to Rose. And in a moment which shows what a smart and subtle actor she is, Billie Piper manages to drench those two words with subtext. Yes, she wants to know what the robots find so fascinating about Reinette, but she’s really asking why this fascination has spread to the Doctor, whose romantic interest the girl in the fireplace has piqued. Why her, she’s asking, and not me?

*****

Moffat has said that this episode is “the one where Doctor Who gets a girlfriend”. Which cheerfully ignores the fact that he already has a girlfriend in Rose. But then the Doctor and Rose have never been what we might call “official”.

Truth is, Rose never knows where she stands with the Doctor. Yes, she’s snogged him but both times were under extraordinary sci-fi infused circumstances: once he drew a bundle of time energy out of her to save her life (via her lips) and the other time she was possessed by a notorious vamp (and not responsible for the actions of her lips). No commitment has been made by either party. Which is where the romantic insecurity sets in. Mickey teases her about it this episode when listing possible suitors for the Doctor in Sarah Jane Smith, Cleopatra and now, Madame De Pompadour.

None of which would matter if Rose felt secure in her relationship with the Doctor, but she’s always played it pretty casually too. She’s kept Mickey on the hook for long enough, keeping her options open. So she doesn’t really have cause to complain when the Doctor takes up with Reinette in record speed. But it obviously bugs her. It’s pretty clear throughout this episode that Rose is thinking, “what if he invites her to come with us? Or what if he decides to stay with her?”

Why the Doctor is suddenly so taken with Reinette is more difficult to work out. Sure, she’s a beautiful woman (probably) but the Doctor’s hung out with plenty of them before and never hooked up so quickly (that wild New Year’s Eve back in 1996 excepted). It’s tempting to think that he’s just so unused to romantic relationships that he’ll latch on to any girl who’s deigned to kiss him.

To be fair, Reinette is remarkably smart, capable and unafraid to take what she wants. He’s not just fascinated by her, but by the mystery of why this troop of ticking androids wants to plug her into their spaceship. (Here we see one of Moffat’s favourite plot lines beginning; a woman as an intriguing puzzle for the Doctor to solve.) Sure, Rose is the girl next door, but Reinette’s an enigma wrapped in a ball gown.

If the Doctor’s aware that he’s causing Rose consternation, he certainly doesn’t show it. Can he really be so blind to her feelings? Doesn’t he know that they’re quasi boyfriend and girlfriend? He’s clearly no stranger to romantic jealousy. Look at how snarkily he tells Louis (Ben Turner) that a lord of time trumps a king of France.

I think it’s more likely that with Rose’s determination to keep her options open with Mickey, the Doctor’s assumed that this whatever-it-is with her is not necessarily going to be monogamous. Sadly, we never got a serious suitor for Rose to find out whether he’d react in the same way (Captain Jack kinda made him jealous for a bit but I’m not really sure that counts. Given that he turns out to be turned on by just about everyone he meets).

It’s sometimes pointed out that the Tennant Doctor and Rose don’t treat other people very well, so ensconced are they in their bubble of love. But The Girl in the Fireplace shows that occasionally, they also don’t treat each other very well. It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the Doctor heads off to “dance” with Reinette mid-episode, with no thought as to how this might make Rose feel. Cheating on his girlfriend with his new girlfriend. The Doctor as a cad – that’s something genuinely new.

Rose and Reinette end up representing the two types of woman our 21st century Doctor, with his new interest in romance, will end up flirting with over the next few years. On one hand, you have the sassy girl next door types: Rose, Amy, Clara and Martha. On the other, you have mythic, powerful, uber women: Reinette, River Song, Tasha Lem, Queens Elizabeth and Nefertiti. Both are idealised feminine archetypes, though at opposite ends of a spectrum of hetero male fantasies. It would be interesting to see the Doctor fall for someone who sits more realistically between these two ideals.

*****

I have a favourite shot in The Girl in the Fireplace, to go along with my favourite line. It’s the final one where we at last find out why the clockwork robots are as fascinated in Reinette as the Doctor is. As it turns out, the answer to Rose’s question was there all the time, obscured by a particularly unfortunate piece of TARDIS parking.

Why her? Well, the ship is named after Madame De Pompadour. In using the very last moments of his story to put the last of its jigsaw puzzle pieces in place, Moffat underlines that the big events of our lives – who you fall in love with, who falls in love with you – depend to a large extent on coincidence and will always remain, at least in part, a mystery.

LINK TO The Woman Who Lived: Both titles refer to mysterious female guest stars.

NEXT TIME: Family history and time travel? Very tricky. Break out the shop bought cake for Demons of the Punjab.

Human beings, being human and The Woman Who Lived (2015)

womanwholived

The Woman Who Lived. Which one’s that again?

It’s one of those episodes which is difficult to recall. Even more difficult to come to grips with, as it’s a gentle, mid-season character drama, more designed to push the season arc along than be a kick-ass episode on its own terms. Still, it’s beguiling… once you’ve remembered which one it is.

It’s another version of Boom Town, which sought to subvert Doctor Who’s norms by being an episode where two characters have a conversation instead of the usual hijinks like monsters invading earth or maniacal despots doing their thing. In fact, it’s an extended conversation which questions the moral tenets the Doctor holds dear, his modus operandi and the very point of him.

That extended conversation is between the Doctor (grizzled Peter Capaldi) and Me (ungrizzled Maisie Williams) about whether he should whisk her away from a life of medieval drudgery. He’s basically responsible for it because 800 years ago he inadvertently made her immortal while trying to save her life. She wants him to take her away from it all, but he’s reluctant to do so because he’s got a thing about immortal, deathless types travelling with each other (ironically, this is exactly what will eventually happen to Me in Hell Bent but, hey, that’s six whole episodes away!).

Churlish to say it, but it’s hard to take Maisie Williams seriously as an immortal, uber-competent heroine. She looks so young and slight. But I suppose that’s the point, right? The juxtaposition of youth and immortality is what makes Me such an interesting proposition. And even though she’s had hundreds of years to master every possible skill you might think of, it’s still odd to see her besting those big beefy men in hand to hand combat. Or even being a highway woman in the first place. The archetypical female highway robber masquerading as a man, may or may not be historically accurate, but it’s great fodder for a Doctor Who story. Even if Me’s overdubbed male voice does bring back unfortunate memories of that episode of Blackadder the Third. (You know the one I’m talking about and if not, here’s a linky link.)

Despite her many talents, Me is not infallible. One of the story’s weaknesses is her credulity; if she has evolved into a super competent uber-everything, why does she fall for lion man Leandro’s (Ariyon Bakare) story? Can someone that longlived really be so gullible? It takes the Doctor about five seconds to see through the leonine ruse. Perhaps being so intent on escaping Earth has blinded her to the fact that this beast may not have his beauty’s best interests in mind.

On one level The Woman Who Lived is a treatise about the Doctor’s taking responsibility for his own actions. It’s all very well to take a split second decision to save a young girl’s life just because you happened to turn up in a David Tennant episode. But what happens when the girl has to hang around in Earth’s history for, like, ever?

Writer Catherine Tregenna suggests that she’s going to lose the very humanity that spurred the Doctor to save her in the first place. The risk is that she becomes so desensitised to the plight of the human “mayflies” around her that she stops being human and becomes… something else. A woman who has mastered humanity’s every skill but can no longer connect with her fellow people. But the Doctor can’t, y’know, go back in time and let her die, so he’s rather stuck with it.

On another level, it’s saying that being human is indivisible from having connections with other humans. Me has detached herself from everyone around her. The awful experience of losing her children to the black plague has meant she’s promised herself to not get as emotionally attached to anyone again. She’s already prepared to kill her helpless old manservant Clayton (Struan Rodger, he of the uncanny ability to make anachronistic cocktails) in an attempt to leave Earth forever. When the climax of the episode arrives in a blur of scampering yokels and a big purple light in a sky, the revelation for Me is that she does actually care about the mayflies she’s had such disdain for.

But she’s forced into her not-very-well-thought-through plan because the Doctor won’t take her with him. His reasoning for not wanting to is pretty weak. He says, “it wouldn’t be good” and that immortals need ongoing contact with mayflies because with their short lifespans, they really know how to party, or something. It’s a point reinforced early on when Me points out that the Doctor really is an old man in this era when life expectancy is at 35. But still, it’s a pretty lame excuse. I mean, why not take her away and deposit her in an era where there’s wi-fi and indoor plumbing? That would be polite, at least.

How much responsibility should the Doctor take for his actions? Behind every story, there are probably consequences as long-lasting and as impactful as that explored in The Woman Who Lived, but only some explore them: The Ark, for one, and to a lesser extent, Bad Wolf. Turns out there’s a subgenre of Doctor Who stories where the consequences of the Doctor’s actions are questioned.

In those stories, the Doctor gets an opportunity to put things to rights. They’re in effect “second chance” stories. But not here. Here, the Doctor deliberately evades his chance of making things right again. In this episode, he decides to leave things as they are, even though it’s entirely within his power to put Me’s world back on track.

Except that he does help her rediscover her own latent humanity. (Which, y’know, she must be stoked about but I bet there’s still a bit of her which is longing for the wi-fi and the indoor plumbing.)

ICKY BIT: when talking about the other immortal he’s travelled with, Captain Jack Harkness, the Doctor tells me, “he’ll get round to you eventually”. Um, that’s a bit gross, isn’t it?

LINK TO The Web PlanetAnthropomorphised animals.

NEXT TIME: Have you met the French? We’re off to meet The Girl in the Fireplace.

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.

Road trip, stolen Ship and Marco Polo (1964)

Marco

There’s a school of thought that whilst Inside the Spaceship, the original TARDIS crew erupts into conflict and then everyone makes up, settling into a comfortable team. This is allegedly the point where, after 13 weeks of experimentation, the show finds its standard shape and settles into a pattern. From this point of view, Marco Polo is a standard historical adventure, albeit the first and a bit grander than most. But this neglects how wildly experimental it is and that it too plays a part in helping the show find its groove. The Keys of Marinus feels much more like the typical sort of story Doctor Who will settle into. Marco Polo is, aptly enough, exploratory.

Its original name was A Journey to Cathay and that suits it far better. Because this is a literal journey across 13th century China and a metaphoric journey for our travellers and chief protagonist Marco Polo (Mark Eden). Uniquely, this is a story which takes months to unfold; the televised sections are just the edited highlights, linked by narrative excerpts from Polo’s diary. This makes it Doctor Who’s only road trip story, and such stories are always about charting the change in characters as they progress along their journey.

What did this story’s viewers back in 1964 think of being dragged along this trek for nearly two months with our heroes? They would surely have noticed, even in its weekly episodic formats, a plot which is the slowest of slow burns. Writer John Lucarotti gently doles out incident after incident for seven weeks, fuelled by two major plot strands which sustain the dramatic tension. The first is the struggle for possession of the TARDIS, played out between our heroes and Polo. The second is the treachery of Mongol warlord Tegana (Derryn Nesbitt) which the TARDIS crew are convinced of, but Polo is not.

The first plot strand prompts multiple attempts by the Doctor (a waspish William Hartnell) and his friends to regain the TARDIS by fair means or foul. Each gambit gets frustratingly closer than the last, but each inevitably fails and with each failure, those earliest episodic viewers must have realised they had at least one more week of Chinese antics left before the series got back to bug eyed monsters. The second plot strand generates various attempts by Tegana to disrupt Polo’s caravan. All his ploys – your draining of water gourds, your facilitation of bandit attacks and so on – are shared with the audience before he attempts them, keeping us one step ahead of both Polo and our TARDIS chums.

The incidents within these two plot strands repeat and overlap each other through the seven episodes. In fact, the whole story is a bit like listening to two vinyl records simultaneously, both of them stuck on a groove. Our friends plan an escape, make their attempt, they fail and face the consequences. Tegana hatches a plot, executes it and is foiled. Repeat and repeat until we reach Peking.

And in between these two narrative drivers, there are other road trip hijinks to fit in: getting lost in a sandstorm, a runaway girl, an attempt to steal the Ship. There’s even time for a poetry recital in the middle of it. This story is in no hurry.

Which is good, because it’s also trying to teach you stuff. Not an episode goes by without an attempt to educate as well as entertain, on subjects as diverse as the boiling temperature of water at heights, how condensation works, the speed of messengers on horseback and the explosive potential of bamboo. Never has the show’s original instructive premise been taken so seriously.

This what I mean by the story being experimental: it’s working out what a Doctor Who historical should be. Should there be a problem for our TARDIS crew to solve? Or should they simply be caught up in events, struggling to get back to the Ship? Should each episode be scattered through with educational nuggets? What’s the mix between drama and comedy? It’s notable that they never again tried another 7 episode historical; after Season 1, all historicals are restricted to 4 parts. Marco Polo is R&D for all the other historicals. Even the 21st century’s celebrity historicals take their lead from this one.

There’s also something experimental in its exploration of morals and its ability to tie them to its plot. The recovery of the TARDIS is a case in point. Polo confiscates the TARDIS because he wants to give it to Kublai Khan (Martin Miller, one of many actors in yellowface, unfortunately). The Doctor makes various attempts to steal it back… but the message here is he can’t win through trickery. Even when he’s an odds on favourite to win it back from the Khan in a game of backgammon, he loses. He doesn’t regain the TARDIS until Polo gives it back to him… and that act is the culmination of a corresponding moral journey for Polo.

It takes seven episodes for Polo to realise the truth of things he’s been struggling with since he met the travellers on the roof of the world. Tegana is up to no good, as our heroes have been telling him. And the TARDIS was not his to take in the first place. To bring the story to its end, to complete is own personal journey, he has to recognise and defeat his enemy but also do the right thing and give back the Ship. True, it’s kind of arbitrary that it takes seven episodes to make it happen. It could have taken four or six or ten, but that’s the saga format for you. It can take as long as you want to reach a destination.

But now that I think of it… wouldn’t it have been more fun if Marco Polo had ditched its pretentions to moral and educational instruction? It could be more like a road trip movie – a kind of Doctor Who version of The Hangover? The Doctor, Ian (William Russell) and Polo, could go out on the tear and wake up to a tiger in their caravan. Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and Ping Cho (Zienia Merton) could steal a couple of fast horses and rack up some bills on the Khan’s expense account. Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) could wake up married to that handsome Ling Tau (Paul Carson). Now those seven episodes would fly past in a blur! And as the Ship departs our heroes could all wearily agree that what happens in Cathay, stays in Cathay.

LINK TO The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Apprentice: the Doctor is separated from the TARDIS in both.

NEXT TIME… Inquests bore me. But luckily it’s Time and the Rani.

Divergence, importance and Rosa (2018)

rosa

The thing about writing a weekly blog about a randomly selected Doctor Who story is that it’s sometimes wildly out of sync with what’s new and exciting. And it feels most disconnected from the rest of Planet Who when a new series airs. Everyone’s talking about the latest and greatest and I’m over here saying, “hey, let’s talk about The Happiness Patrol!”

So when I worked out that my 250th post was going to fall during the new series, I thought I’d make a pretence of being up-to-date and de-random the whole shebang just for a moment. Just for one week, I’ll talk about the most recent episode to air. And when I was planning this brief foray into topicality, I hoped that the post would neatly coincide with an episode which was notable. Something interesting and engaging and that felt like an event for the show.

I got lucky. That episode turned out to be Rosa, an episode which offers much to talk about. I know this because so many people have been talking about it.

Online fandom seemed to draw a collective breath after this episode aired – a kind of moment of startled surprise at what they’d just seen – and then the tweeting and blogging and podcasting began in earnest. This is an episode which people want to discuss. And debate. And draw attention to, in a kind of “wow, did you see what Doctor Who just did?” moment. BBC News, Radio Times and New Statesman ran stories on it; more than the usual amount of attention for a mid-series celebrity historical.

Normally, I have months and more often, years to think about a Doctor Who story before I write about it, so the prospect of giving a prompt response to an episode panicked me. So, I’ve been reading and listening to everyone else’s opinions, to think over what other people have said to help synthesise my own thoughts. And over the course of five days, this is the general opinion I’ve noted: “It’s very good. Surprisingly good considering how badly it could have gone. But…”

And that “but” is where opinions start to differ. For some, Rosa is preachy, for others, poignant. The aspects of it that one person loves, someone else hates. Whether it’s that scene by the dustbin or the patriotic trumpets in the score or the distracting eyebrows of the time meddling racist… you’ll find voices in support and criticism of them all. Well, so far, so the lived experience of Doctor Who fans everywhere.

There’s something invigorating about this whirlwind of ideas and competing viewpoints because we all know it won’t last. In years to come, it will all settle down, consensus will be mostly reached and we’ll all come to some sort of rough agreement about the episode. We’ll assign it a mark out of 10. We’ll pigeonhole it. But right now, we’re in a state of uncertain, noisy, opinionated divergence. I wish it was always like this.

***

If there’s a common word to pick out of the maelstrom of comment about Rosa, it’s “important”. That’s a signifier for when Doctor Who drops its usual far-fetched malarkey and tackles a serious issue. Like that other “important” episode Vincent and the Doctor, Rosa takes a real and present problem, refuses to dress it up in allegory and drops it like a truth bomb into the Doctor’s fantasy-filled world. The Doctor’s not that well equipped to deal with racism, or depression or similarly complex societal issues. But occasionally an episode forces her to do so. And because this draws a mainstream audience’s attention to those problems, we say that’s important.

In Rosa’s case, it’s also the first story in 55 years written by a person of colour (definitely important) and a compelling piece of drama. I relished my first viewing of the episode in which the powder keg tension of Alabama in 1955 was at its most palpable. It felt like our TARDIS travellers, particularly Ryan (Tosin Cole), were in genuine danger. This pervading threat of jeopardy, all too rare in Doctor Who, is like lightning in a bottle. A second viewing can’t hope to recapture that feeling, but it at least allows the viewer to appreciate how director Mark Tonderai and DOP Tico Poulakakis created it. (Aided, it’s got to be said, by some of the best art direction the show has ever seen and some brilliant locations which felt authentically deep south).

Rosa herself is played with poise and precision by Vinette Robinson. Where Doctor Who’s other historical celebrities – your Shakespeares, Churchills and so on have been broad brush pastiches – Robinson produces the sort of naturalism you expect on prestigious dramas. She lends this already weighty story much gravitas. Among the storm of opinions about this episode, praise for Robinson is as consistent as praise for the decision to keep Rosa’s story parallel to but separate from the sci-fi hijinks of the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) foiling uber racist Krasko (Joshua Bowman). Rosa’s act of civil disobedience is too profound and treasured to be spoilt by turning it into standard Doctor Who, by making the bus driver be an alien in disguise or something. If a Doctor Who episode’s going to be “important”, it also needs to tread carefully.

Still, there are missteps, and despite the episode being genuinely moving, we shouldn’t overlook them. The script telegraphs its intentions too often, such as when Ryan inquires how the temporal displacement gadget works and the Doctor carefully explains how to use it before warning him not to. Surely no one was surprised when he disobeyed her a few scenes later. Repetition snuck in: the Banksy joke, for instance, worked well once and didn’t need to be repeated. And as for how many times our TARDIS quartet explained to each other how they needed to coordinate efforts to get Rosa on the bus on time… well, I’ll just say I felt comprehensively informed.

Those four are proving to be engaging company, even if their exploits seem carefully planned around their individual skill sets. They just about get away with Yaz (Mandip Gill) using her investigative skills to plot Rosa’s movements, and Ryan can be relied upon to fire the space guns and bumble into trouble, but I’m just not sure how many more bus driving related plots they can conjure up for Graham (Bradley Walsh).  Their individual character arcs are all pointing to moments of self-realisation I’m quietly dreading: Yaz reconnecting with her family, Ryan riding a bike to save the universe and Graham driving a spaceship vaguely shaped like a bus to some vital plot point. (And at some stage, surely Ryan’s going to call Graham “Grandad,” and I’ll be hiding behind my sofa for that one).

The Doctor continues to be refreshingly warm, smart and enthusiastic, walking confidently through this tale of the worst of human prejudice. She’s the first Doctor who seems to truly enjoy having a team of people around her, but she has the smarts and courage to talk down a two-bit crook like Krasko on her own, and without raising a sweat.

Where the Doctor truly looks challenged, for the first time this season, is in that climactic scene on the bus, where she must steady her friends to stand by an allow an act of racism to play out, in order to safeguard the future. It’s a brave scene in several ways. First, it’s brave to make a decision to do nothing the moment on which a drama hangs. Secondly, it’s uncomfortable to watch the Doctor and her friends silently condone a moment which goes against everything they stand for. Thirdly, in doing so, the Doctor seems to reject the radical act of demanding immediate change which she is usually the catalyst for. She’s normally the bringer of regime change on many an oppressed alien planet. Here, she falls in favour of slow, incremental change, making people of colour take the long way around to equal rights. It’s a deeply conflicting ending but it’s designed to be, and that’s what makes it work.

This kind of small-l liberal resignation to the practical – an attitude of “well you’ve got to work within the system and change will eventually come” – is an odd note for a Doctor Who story to end on. And I can see where some are coming from when they say that’s part of the story positioning racism too firmly as a historical artefact; that despite Ryan and Yaz’s dumpster conversation, there wasn’t enough recognition of the ongoing stain of racial prejudice in our own society. I think there’s two elements here which redress the balance.

The first and subtlest is that Krasko comes from the far future. He’s a walking indication that racism will prevail long into humanity’s future and will always need confronting. More overt is the choice to close out the episode with Andra Day’s Rise Up. As it’s closely linked to the Black Lives Matter campaign, it’s a clear statement that racism is still our problem and the fight goes on; a point I’d much prefer being made by music than by the post-match TARDIS exposition convo.

***

In her first episode of this series, and in the trailers to promote it, our new Doctor proclaimed, “this is going to be fun!” That seems to be a catch cry for this season, and a point of difference from the show’s recent past. Whatever the merits of the Capaldi era, it wasn’t, for the most part, what you’d call “fun”.

Rosa proved to be an early antidote to fun in this season. But that’s OK, because it swapped being fun for being essential viewing, for more than just us die hards. Whatever the diverse opinions about this episode, I think we can confidently say it’s been a while since Doctor Who was that.

LINK TO The Happiness Patrol: both feature Americans.

NEXT TIME: Normal service is resumed. Stop your Cryon, it’s Attack of the Cybermen.