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Party time, playthings and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (2008)

stolenearth

If you’re going to throw a party, you might as well invite all your friends. That’s what it feels like watching Russell T Davies’ Series Four finale, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Multiple doctors, many companions, UNIT, Torchwood, the Daleks and Davros (Julian Bleach). Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister (you know who she is). K flippin’ 9.

It’s odd to precede this with Listen, so self contained and inward looking. This is the other end of the Who-ish spectrum. Listen is the work of a writer self-imposing restrictions on himself, in order to keep himself game fit. It’s about trying to find out what makes the Doctor tick. The Stolen Earth etc. is about bold, grandstanding, attention grabbing TV. It’s about making the biggest, showiest version of the show, while Listen the quietest, most enigmatic version.

Oddly enough though, both are about rewarding fans. The Stolen Earth overtly, because it brings back favourite characters, ties up loose ends to various plot points and even has a mid story regeneration. Listen is for fans too, but more subtly. It delves into the Doctor’s past, plays with his psyche and offers a glimpse into his childhood. One is Longleat, the other Lungbarrow.

I don’t really know what it was about Doctor Who in 2014 which required a Listen. But we know why Doctor Who in 2008 needed The Stolen Earth. It’s because after three years of successively bigger and grander series finales, Series Four’s closer had no choice but to top them all. The only option was to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. And that’s what we got: garish, sometimes absurd, but never quiet, Doctor Who.

*****

The Stolen Earth has an unusual structure. It starts where most Parts Ones end, with a full on invasion. There’s no time wasted in set up. We’re straight into it. This episode has a lot to get through, so there’s no time to waste.

Its main task is to get all the Doctor’s companions in place. It’s funny to see them all turn up once, like a reunion episode, but one made before any of the regulars have left. Actually, it’s a cross over show, combining the worlds of Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures, addressing that core audience of die hards who watch all three shows. The result is an episode with no supporting cast, just regulars. But there are so many of the buggers! The majority of the episode is spent introducing them all and putting them in touch with each other. It’s RTD at his most dextrous, but there’s little time to give any of them any meaningful character development.

They’re all trying to contact the Doctor (David Tennant, working double time), giving the impression that although they can handle Slitheen, Sontarans and gaseous alien nymphomaniacs when the real bad guys come flying in, they need to call in reinforcements. They eventually manage it, through some advanced technobabble, and the Doctor heads to Earth to find them all. Once there, time starts to run out and narrative convenience steps in. Rose (Billie Piper) and Jack (John Barrowman) suddenly manage to teleport directly to the Doctor with consummate ease and no data as to his whereabouts. But there’s no time to waste. We’ve got a regeneration to get to.

And it’s a brilliant one too – the Doctor shot down by a Dalek while racing to reunite with Rose. Then a cliffhanger with a regeneration in progress. Davies writes it precisely. He doesn’t end the episode without showing the Doctor regenerating, the full orange volcano, his handsome face engulfed. This is actually happening. It’s new Doctor time when you least expected it.

Bring in all the Daleks and companions you want. That regeneration’s the standout moment in the show. It’s the bit baby fans will be reminiscing about for years; the popping of a champagne cork at the end of a raucous shindig of an episode.

*****

Of course, if you’re going to get all your toys out of the box, you have to put them away neatly afterward. Davros and the Daleks? You can just blow them up. The Earth can be towed back home by the TARDIS, accompanied by a triumphant anthem. Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Jack can go back to their respective series. Martha (Freema Agyeman) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) tag along with Jack (though apparently they slip away and get unfeasibly married instead). The others prove more difficult propositions.

Donna becomes a super being, bathed in golden light, not so different from what happened to Rose. For a brief amount of time, she becomes a Donna Doctor hybrid, with his brains but retaining her sass. It’s a beguiling combination, a sort of streetwise Romana. A series of this Doctor/Companion combo would have been fun. But instead, she gets her memory wiped and sent back home to Mum. It’s presented as a death, the death of the woman Donna had become. Call me heartless, but it’s never struck me as the kick in the emotional guts it is sometimes presented as. It’s always been the disingenuous pay off of the ‘a companion’s gonna die’ gimmick, hinted at throughout the story. Again, not so different from what happened to Rose.

Rose, though, should by rights get to live happily ever after with the love of her life, brown suit Doctor. Instead, she gets dropped off on that bleak ol’ beach with blue suit Doctor, with the one heart and the regular aging. It’s a bittersweet ending, being left with a Doctor who will love her, but one who’ll always be a photocopy of the original. By any rational measure, she’s better off with this ersatz version, but then as the Doctor himself once said, love was never known for its rationality.

But I’ve got bad news for Miss Tyler. It’s never going to last. Sure this Doctor’s human, but she seems to have forgotten that he’s also half Donna. That’s gonna be a shock when she wakes up one morning and it’s all new flavour pringle, Brangelina and text me, text me. Oi, Earth girl! This party’s left one hell of a hangover.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: When the Daleks attack UNIT’s New York base, someone shouts, “Give me a Sit Rep right now!”. The DVD’s subtitles say, “Give me a cigarette right now!” Which is understandable in the circumstances.

LINK TO Listen: Peter Bennett, production manager on this story, produced that one.

 

NEXT TIME…: I am very, very cross with you! We’re off to meet The Girl Who Died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

doctors-daughter

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brain teasers, mind benders and 42 (2007)

42

Showrunners have become like Doctors. Every few years one succumbs to exhaustion (or perhaps falls from a radio telescope, we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes in Cardiff) and regenerates. The time in between tenures is marked by uncertainty and worry. What will the new guy be like? Will he ruin everything? Or will he be brilliant? (We never seem to canvas the most likely option that he’ll do some things we like, some things we don’t, but on the whole things will be OK.)

And so Steven Moffat is going to hand over to Chris Chibnall after Series 10. With the best will in the world, it’s fair enough to say that his ascension to the showrunner’s swivelly chair has not been met with the same anticipation as the Moff’s. Moffat had written four highly acclaimed Doctor Who stories before he took over the show, as well as a string of TV successes including the much praised update of Jekyll. Chibnall has written four, well, not so highly acclaimed Doctor Who stories and was lead writer on the first two series of Torchwood (both of which had mixed reviews). Never mind that he also has a string of TV credits, including the much praised (at least in its first season) Broadchurch. He’s not the guy who wrote Blink, he’s the guy who wrote The Hungry Earth, so although it’s chronically unfair to judge him before he does the job, that’s exactly what a lot of folk will do.

I doubt if Chibnall cares. A fan of long standing, he knows what an unforgiving lot Whoheads can be and was no doubt prepared for a certain amount of backlash. In fact, he was part of that fervent mob back in 1986, when he went on telly to chastise Pip and Jane Baker for their work on The Trial of a Time Lord. Jane’s no longer with us, but we can only hope that Pip will get his own back in 2018, on a live talk back special or something. “I think the dialogue is far too pedestrian and there should really be a wicked female scientist of some sort,” I hope he says.

Anyway, to 42, and via it to the rest of Chibnall’s Who work to see what might be divined about his approach to the series once he gets his grubby little protuberances on it. It’s difficult to see from his grab bag of episodes what particular slant he has on the show, because he seems to have always been given a tight brief to work with. He seems to be the guy who writes Who to order.

42 has a particularly clear brief – to write a ‘race against the clock’ episode and set it in real time. Chibnall’s script works well within these strictures. These sort of stories work by heaping problem upon problem on our heroes until quite late in proceedings, so that it seems there’s not enough time left for everything to work out well. The challenge is for a resolution to emerge at the last minute that seems logical, but not coincidental. Chibnall’s pacing of events throughout the episode, combined with vibrant direction from Graeme LOTSOFLUVERLYENERGY! Harper, means he pulls off this trick. The finished product holds the audience’s attention firmly, if not quite nail bitingly.

What he doesn’t manage is to create particularly interesting characters. The crew of the good ship Pentallian are generic sci-fi crew member fodder. Only Michelle Collins as Captain (Go on – see if you can remember her character’s name without looking it up) and perhaps William Ash as (Go on – have another go), a sort of love interest for Freema Agyeman (if you can’t remember her character’s name, you’re reading the wrong blog), make any lasting impression. Chibnall’s next story, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood has a similarly lacklustre supporting cast, but by the time we get to his two Series 7 stories, he’s changed approach and given us characters derived from strong established archetypes (big game hunters and UNIT’s scientific advisers), allowing him to vary his line ups from my generic angsty humans under pressure.

There is a pattern there, in those collections of odd bod humans, often in isolated situations, struggling to make sense of an alien threat they don’t understand. So far, so Doctor Who I hear you say. Perhaps that in itself is a Chibnallesque trait: he understands the fundamentals of Doctor Who, and doesn’t seek to subvert them as Moffat does. If so, we might be illuminating one reason why Chibnall’s rise to the top job hasn’t filled everyone with joy: to date he’s demonstrated he knows how to make good Doctor Who, but not innovative, ground breaking Doctor Who.

So it would makes sense that his Doctor Who eps feel quite traditional, reminiscent of classic Who. As many have noted, 42 is a re-run of Tom Baker’s Planet of Evil and The Hungry Earth feels like a deliberate combination of elements from early Pertwee stories The Silurians, Inferno and The Daemons.  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship brings to mind The Ark in Space and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Even his most novel episode, The Power of Three, is a UNIT story which rejigs the trick of alien technology being unwittingly taken into peoples homes a la The Invasion  and Terror of the Autons. (Although we don’t get the unsubtle continuity references in the dialogue you get from say, Mark Gatiss, another writer influenced heavily by the series’ past.)

We might well expect more new Who that feels like old Who from a Chibnall series, which may please many a old fanboy and girl. And surely 42 is the epitome of that. After all, it is effectively set in one long corridor that people spend a lot of time running up and down.

*****

Philip Hinchcliffe has said about Terror of the Zygons that a lot of brilliant work on a Doctor Who  story can be undone by one dud special effect. 42 shows us this is also true of dud plot elements, where the credulity-stretching pub quiz questions which open the various bulkhead doors, sticks out like an unsightly scratch on an Elvis LP (pre-download, you understand). It’s a half-hearted gimmick, which no-one has the enthusiasm to see through to the episode’s end. (Although you can see how a fiendishly difficult last door question with Martha having to guess the answer with seconds to spare might have worked). I think it’s this hokey element which stops what is otherwise a slick and stylish episode being more fondly remembered.

Still, I think a trick was missed. In an episode called 42, and one featuring a ship falling into a sun, we might have expected a bit more hat-tipping to Who alumnus Douglas Adams. Surely one of those brain teasers should have been ‘what’s the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?’. Deep Thought would have approved.

LINK TO The Krotons: both require the Doctor’s companion to answer a set of quiz questions.

NEXT TIME: We are put down right in the middle of the French Revolution. Yes, The Reign of Terror.

 

Changing, unchanging and Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (2007)

daleks manhattan

1980s script editor Andrew Cartmel recounts a story of how, in his early days of working on Doctor Who, he suggested to producer John Nathan-Turner the use of a tentacled monster. Apparently JN-T said with world weary experience, ‘tentacles are difficult’.

Twenty years later, he was proven right when this lurid two part story featured a human Dalek hybrid as its main villain. An intricate mask of make up and prosthetics transforms actor Eric Loren into a man with a Cusick style Dalek mutant for a head. Unfortunately it also has a series of tentacles which twitch awkwardly throughout proceedings, and look unfortunately phallic. This guy, he’s quite the dickhead.

The image of Dalek Sec, in his pin striped suit and black and white shoes below his scaly one eyed doodle face, dominates Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks. But it shouldn’t overshadow the interesting themes running through the story. Writer Helen Raynor mashes up the Daleks with depression era New York, and body horror with song and dance, to pose questions about human nature. It’s an unusual combination of elements, but it’s the most innovative take on a Dalek story since 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks, with which it shares a focus on the dividing lines between humans and Daleks.

The theme is established early through the character of Solomon (Hugh Quarshie), named (not very subtly) after the biblical king, whose wisdom was evoked in the story of the two mothers who claimed one baby. Here, he similarly mediates in a fight between two men over a loaf of bread. “No matter how bad things get,” he scolds them, “we still act like human beings.”

Things get pretty bad for young hot potato Laszlo (Ryan Carnes) who, early in the story, is turned into a hybrid pig slave. Once considered comely, he now has a face only his devoted showgirl Tallulah (Miranda Raison) can love. Unlike the legion of other pig slaves, Laszlo hangs on to his humanity, and is a constant reminder of what Solomon was saying.

On the other end of the spectrum is the ruthless foreman Mr Diagoras (named, it seems, after an ancient Greek atheist). He’s supervising the construction of the Empire State Building, and is pushing his workers to their limits, knowing their desperation for paid employment in the middle of the Depression. Diagoras’ masters are the Daleks, and they are pleased with him. “You think like a Dalek,” one of them says to him. And soon enough, he’ll have functional appendages like one too. And not so functional ones hanging from his face.

So the story is peppered throughout with characters talking about – or pushing the boundaries of – what it means to be human or Dalek. This leads to the reveal of Dalek Sec’s big plan, the hybridization of himself with a human being. The trouble is, this goes against his troops’ deeply ingrained instincts towards racial purity. As a result, we get something very rare: a Dalek/Dalek argument.

DALEK THAY: This action contradicts the Dalek Imperative.

DALEK JAST: Daleks are supreme. Humans are weak.

DALEK SEC: But there are millions of humans and only four of us. If we are supreme, why are we not victorious? The Cult of Skaro was created by the Emperor for this very purpose. To imagine new ways of survival.

DALEK THAY: But we must remain pure.

DALEK SEC: No, Dalek Thay. Our purity has brought us to extinction. We must adapt to survive.

Post transformation, Dalek Sec initially finds what he desires from the human part of himself: ambition, hatred and aggression. “This species is so very Dalek,” he savours, like a connoisseur sipping a new wine. Predictably enough though, Sec starts to exhibit qualities such as mercy and humility, to such an extent that his Dalek compadres can no longer take it. In my favourite scene, two Dalek conspirators sneak off into the sewer and admit their doubts about Sec’s plan to each other. One’s head swivels around 180 degrees to check they’re not being eavesdropped upon. That bit never fails to raise a smile; this species is so very human.

From then on it’s only a matter of time until they turn on old penis features. They don’t simply exterminate him (they never do when it’s someone important). They chain him by the neck and force him to walk on all fours. He gets to die sacrificing himself for the Doctor, the first Dalek to ever do so. And the Daleks return to their villainous status quo.

This is the ultimate problem with a story like Daleks in Manhattan, or indeed The Evil of the Daleks, or any story that tries to do something new with the Daleks. They are the least flexible component of Doctor Who. If you try to alter them, they have to be reset to their original monstrous state. They can’t be changed.

A separate, more morally ambiguous strain of Daleks, perhaps even with newly designed casings might be a very interesting development for Doctor Who. I doubt it will ever happen though. Remember the outrage when there was an attempt to update the Dalek design in Victory of the Daleks (not to mention what the Nation estate would have to say). They can’t be touched, literally or metaphorically.

Where this inevitably leads us, is to the need for Davros. He’s the one great innovation in the Daleks. When introduced to the series in 1975, he provided the impetus for the next four stories. Even in the new series, he periodically pops up to liven things up. And look, the next Dalek story after Daleks in Manhattan sees his return. Because he’s a character which can add that element of unpredictability to the Daleks. Dalek Sec had the potential to be another recurring character in the Davros mould; someone who could have been the spark that lit some new fire under the Dalek mythos.

But can you imagine being confronted with those spasming face cocks every time he turned up? No. Just no. Haven’t we learnt? Tentacles are difficult.

LINK TO Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. I don’t have to point this out, do I?

NEXT TIME: Unhand me, Madam! It’s more trouble with tentacles in Spearhead from Space.

 

Admiration, imitation and Blink (2007)

blink2

On my intro page, it says I’m not going to instantly assume that the stories everyone loves are automatically brilliant. And the example I chose was Blink, an episode consistently voted as one of the best, if not the best episode, of New Who. And while it might be diverting to argue that Blink is not the all-conquering classic its reputed to be, I couldn’t keep it up. Truth is, Blink is an outstanding example of Doctor Who. At the time of writing it has a rating of 9.8/10 on imdb.com, based on 10,582 votes. That’s a lot of 9s and 10s.

Radio Times readers recently voted it their favourite episode since the series’ return in 2005. Writer Steven Moffat was gracious about the honour:

You know, when I wrote it, I thought Blink was a perfectly serviceable script. Nothing special, did the job which, back then, was to have a Doctor Who story needing only two daysshooting from David Tennant… What made it a little bit magical was, of course, the work of othersSome days everything just works.

Moffat is right to point out that this was a team effort, but he downplays his own role in its success a little too modestly. His script is the tightest ever written for the series; there’s barely a word out of place. It’s not perfect of course – you have to accept the central paradox that no one wrote the Doctor’s half of his conversation with heroine Sally Sparrow for the story to work (the bootstrap paradox, recently tutorialised for us by Before the Flood) and Martha has no useful role to play, criminally underusing the terrific Freema Agyeman, and why would a Weeping Angel which can move like quicksilver need to disable its victim by bunging a rock at ’em? – but these are quibbles. Overall, it’s a beautifully crafted piece of work.

Each scene moves effortlessly, logically but never predictably into the next. The dialogue is smart and subtle and often poignant. The stakes are gradually raised throughout each act, till we reach a truly riveting finale, with the Angels stalking our heroes in order to gain access to the TARDIS. The resolution with the TARDIS departing leaving the Angels tricked into paralyzing each other, is novel and satisfying, and there’s a cute little postscript to wrap up the loose ends. Honestly, film schools will be using this as a set text.

As for “the work of others” as Moff puts it, foremost there’s director Hettie MacDonald, who not only tells the story with pace and endows it with slick, spooky style, she creates the visual grammar for the Weeping Angels – sudden cuts, unnerving shot choices, big close ups on those blank faces – which many after her have taken up. She’s recently returned for The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, and it’s a mystery why it’s taken so long. Ernie Vinzce’s photography is flawless, adding a noirish sheen to it all. Millennium FX’s designs for the Weeping Angels make them modern day Ray Cusicks. And in the middle of it all Carey Mulligan, five minutes away from superstardom, being beautiful and strong and holding our attention as well as any Doctor could.

No wonder then, that Doctor Who has never really recovered from Blink. Every episode since exists in its shadow.

*****

Ah the heady days of 2007. As I mentioned when talking about Voyage of the Damned, Doctor Who was flying high that year. Two spin off shows, two companion factual show and Kylie Minogue for Christmas. But Steven Moffat’s expectations forBlink, that poor Doctor-lite, mid-season filler were not high. “I doubt Blink will top any polls, because of the simple fact that Doctor Who should do what it says on the tin,” said Moffat in DWM 383, “which is provide you with David Tennant popping out of his TARDIS and kicking the crap out of alien nasties,”

These days it’s a surprise when Blink doesn’t top a poll. When the Moff was presented with an award from DWM in 2014 for writing the most popular story of all time, he was challenged to predict which story earned him this honour. “Is it Blink? It’s always Blink,” he warily guessed. (Not on this occasion. Perhaps it was just the 50th anniversary afterglow talking, but this time it was The Day of the Doctor. Blink came second.) Even the Moff seems slightly worried that Blink is going to be the height of his Who career; years of showrunning and he’s never quite put that lightning back in the bottle.

But that’s not stopped him from trying. The Angels have made numerous reappearances, although it’s not those that feel so much like an attempt to recapture that old Blinky magic. I think it’s first noticeable in the creation of the Silence, monsters which, like the Angels, are tricksy when viewed. Then there’s Deep Breath, named like Blink after an reflexive bodily function which you have to suppress the urge to do to stay alive. And then there’s Listen, again named after something we all do, but which features a briefly features a ‘monster’ you mustn’t look at. (I look forward to Sneeze and less so to Fart. Featuring the Slitheen.) There’s also the tendency for things to happen to the Doctor out of order, as seem in many a tale – The Big Bang, The Impossible Astronaut and so on, but it starts here, in the timey wimey Blink.

This hero worship of a story has happened before. There’s 1960s thriller The Web of Fear, which spawned the near identical The Invasion and led to a whole string of stories with the military protecting the Earth from alien incursion. As late as Invasion of the Dinosaurs, there are still monsters lurking in the London Underground. Then there’s 1980s crash wallop Earthshock, which brought about no end of stories featuring returning monsters and downbeat endings. We might also add City of Death to that list, because its Parisian exteriors inspired later trips to Amsterdam, Lanzarote and Seville.

None of this is a bad thing. Doctor Who should seek to emulate its best episodes. Its producers would be mad not to. And if it feels like things are a little familiar from time to time, it’s hardly the worst crime. But here’s to the day when an even better episode than Blink comes along. That will truly be something to not take your eyes off.

LINK to The End of the World. Both feature characters communicating across time (Rose & Jackie and Sally & the Doctor).

NEXT TIME. It’s The Curse of Peladon and that’s a solid hairy fact.

 

Faith, contradiction and Gridlock (2007)

gridlock1

What exactly does Gridlock have to say about faith? A quick Google search will show that this is an episode claimed by different commentators as being pro-religion or anti-religion. All this from an episode which centres around a big traffic jam. What’s going on?

Let’s start here: movieguide.org is “the family guide to movies and entertainment”. It awards the annual Epiphany Prizes which “endeavour to encourage the production of feature films and television programs which are wholesome, uplifting, and inspirational and which result in a great increase in either man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God.” Gridlock was reportedly nominated for the 2008 awards but it didn’t win (The Valley of Light, a romantic drama, did).

So there’s definitely something about Gridlock which speaks to (at least some) Christians. I couldn’t find any details about how the episode earned its nomination (indeed, it’s not even listed among that year’s nominees). But I can make a stab at it. The New New York of Gridlock is a place where the population is trapped in a purgatorial existence, midway between a hot, dank hell filled with beasts and a glorious heavenly city. To help them cope, the drivers and passengers trapped on the highway periodically join in chorus to sing hymns. The Doctor commits the sin of lying (so what’s new?) and spends the rest of the episode seeking redemption. In the end, a mysterious being gives his life so that others may live.

The apparent paradox is that writer and showrunner Russell T Davies is an atheist. He’s not a writer who’s going to put pro-religious messages in his scripts. Quite the opposite. And yet he wrongfoots his audience by regularly using imagery which references the Bible. Such references pop up regularly in his Doctor Who work. Voyage of the Damned features angles which help the Doctor float to a higher floor, a la the Ascension. The Last of the Time Lords  features a whole world united in prayer for the Doctor. Gridlock, features not one, but two hymns.

But Davies, doesn’t see this referencing as evidence of a religious subtext. In DWM481, when discussing Voyage of the Damned he said: “I just think all that iconography is up for grabs. As an atheist, I don’t accord it any special power. So using an angel is no different to using The Robots of Death or The Poseidon Adventure or Annie Get Your Gun.”

So for RTD, the Bible is as a text like any other, to reference as and when he wants. Davies, I imagine, would reject the idea that Gridlock is pro-religion. And there is certainly evidence within the episode of it being anti-religion, most prominently that the faith of the highway dwellers has dulled them into an intellectual stupor, so they are no longer willing to ask the hard questions none of them want to face: where are the police? Why do they hear nothing substantial from the surface? What if they’ve been abandoned? (It’s reminiscent of its crabby forebear The Macra Terror in this respect. It also featured a populace too fixated to ask basic questions about the world around them.) Not to mention that it’s hard to imagine a story promoting traditional Christian views including two married lesbians and a dominatrix cat.

But the point in the episode where the highway folk’s faith is most keenly demonstrated – and criticised – is the singing of the hymn The Old Wooden Cross. Catkind driver Brannigan (Ardal O’Hanlon) rebukes the Doctor for stirring up trouble by asking. “You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.” And all the car dwellers we meet join in the song; there are no abstainers. Companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) is moved to tears by the profoundness of it and joins in. The Doctor (David Tennant) does not. He can see that faith is what’s holding this society back.

But even here we’re getting mixed messages. The Doctor’s reaction could be seen as a severe critique of religion, but the production acts against that conclusion. The power of that song, the reactions of the actors, the direction, the music… Everything points to that hymn being a strength of these people not a weakness. You can see how the confusion about where this story stands on religion emerges. The script indicates one thing, but an extra layer of meaning emerges through the production.

But it’s not just the gap between concept and realisation. It’s also that RTD regularly uses the accouterments of Christianity in his writing. As he said in DWM, he sees these as powerful images which he uses in a secular way, but this is clearly not how movieguide.org views them. Gridlock is after all, a story that ends with the world singing Abide With Me, and not in an ironic way, but in a genuinely reverent way. You can see how a pro-religion reading is possible, and as valid as an anti-religion reading.

Read Gridlock anyway you like, and people inevitably will. But it’s interesting that this episode has become the focus of Doctor Who‘s relationship with religion. Particularly as Davies points out in The Writer’s Tale “I didn’t write Gridlock thinking this is my take on religion. My foremost thought, and my principal job, was to write an entertaining drama about cats and humans stuck on a motorway.”

But if the author is truly dead, as the old post modernist credo goes, then Davies’ intentions are irrelevant. And thus his atheism is irrelevant. And whether he thinks using biblical imagery is as innocuous as using secular imagery is also irrelevant. It’s the reader that constructs meaning.

Personally, I think it’s great if a story like Gridlock can generate multiple and seemingly contradictory readings. How much better is that than something simple and didactic? It means that people will be debating this episode for years to come. That’s brilliant and exciting.

Now if you can all turn to page 181 in your hymn books, and join in…

LINK to The Idiot’s Lantern. Both have links to the Troughton era. Gridlock via giant crabs, and The Idiot’s Lantern through the casting of Margaret John who was in Fury From the Deep.

NEXT TIME… A dislike of the unlike. We’re heading all the way back to meet The Daleks.