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Tourism, divorce and Asylum of the Daleks (2012)

In Australia, we have “big things”. These are oversized monuments which serve as cut price tourist traps for towns all around the country. They’re usually giant sculptures or buildings retrofitted into the shape of something indicative of the local area. Often, but not always, produce related. The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour. The Big Merino Ram at Goulburn. The Big Boxing Crocodile in Darwin. They are kitsch colossuses and squirm-worthy expressions of Australian culture. (Bemused non-Australians can consult the full list of Big Things for further clarification. You have been warned.)

So imagine my delight when Asylum of the Daleks opens and shows that Skaro, has its very own big thing, the Big Dalek. Like many Big Things, there are hardly any visitors inside. Just the Doctor (a cagey Matt Smith) and the suspiciously named Darla (Anamaria Marinca) and like most Big Thing attendees, they look tremendously underwhelmed. If only they were eating terrible fast food and browsing half heartedly through overpriced souvenirs, the grim picture would be complete.

The Doctor’s visit to the Big Dalek, highlights one of showrunner Steven Moffat’s recurring motifs about the Daleks – an obsession with what’s inside them. This opening scene’s just a precursor to the episode’s major revelation that crash survivor Oswin (Jenna Louise Coleman) is in fact the cognitive remnants of a converted human, living inside a Dalek. The recently randomed Into the Dalek takes a more literal trip to the interior, but there’s also The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar which, for the third time, put Jenna inside a Dalek. Consider also Moffat’s interior adventures inside robots (Let’s Kill Hitler), the TARDIS (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) and space whales (The Beast Below) and we can see that he’s really into internalising.

Why, I don’t know. But in the case of the Daleks, it does highlight for the viewer they are vehicles, not robots. There are Kaled mutants, and sometimes converted people, inside them. There’s also a classic Moffat inversion on display in this Asylum too. Because as well as people inside Daleks, there are Daleks hiding inside people. Duplicate humans and reanimated corpses sprout eyestalks from their forehead and gunsticks from their palms. Moffat’s Daleks are monsters which both encase you and fester inside you.

Worse than that, they infect you. The Dalek nanocloud is an all pervading smog of tiny robots. They get inside you (that again) and turn you into a Dalek from the inside out. The physical changes come after the mental ones. The mental battle for control is enough to force Oswin to create an elaborate fantasy about being under siege from the Daleks, in order to protect her own identity. We see the start of this process effecting Amy (Karen Gillan) and in a beautifully shot sequence, we see her slipping into madness, and hallucinating that she’s in a ballroom full of dancers, when in fact, she’s in a pit packed with deranged Daleks. Around her, ballerinas pirouette. Add a dancing dwarf and we’re almost at Twin Peaks.

The ballerina, also glimpsed in Oswin’s hideout, is an important symbol here. Dalek creator Terry Nation claimed inspiration for his creatures from the Russian ballet dancers in enormous skirts, gliding across stage. We’re prompted to recall the Daleks’ origins, because this is a story steeped in their history. There are other hints scattered about – Oswin carries an egg whisk about, the better to prepare her soufflés with. Like a young Doctor Who fan creating his own Dalek army out of a miscellany of toys from throughout the show’s history, so Moffat populates Asylum with Daleks of all different colours and designs. Loads of old Dalek stories get shoutouts. This is about mashing up the show’s past and present, as well as discovering whether Daleks are bigger on the inside.

But I digress. I reckon the idea of a Big Dalek has legs, although it wouldn’t actually have legs. It could tower over Cardiff Bay (“Look at the state of it,” could become this century’s “Bye Bye Duggan!”) Exit would be, of course, via the gift shop and if it needs fresh merchandise to sell to hapless visitors, Asylum again shows us the way. Plastic rotating ballerinas. Egg whisks. Eye stalk headbands. And in the cafe, soufflé for all.

*****

But now I must bring up the difficult topic of divorce. Specifically, the Ponds’.

I suppose that one of the problems about having a married couple on any TV program is that marital bliss can’t last forever. Whether it’s likely or not, it’s not very dramatically satisfying. Trouble must eventually set in. Or in the case of the Ponds, suddenly set in.

Asylum implies that it has been some time since Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have seen the Doctor, and since then, their relationship has broken down to the point where divorce is the only option. Only a quick montage in the online extra Pond Life would have indicated to dedicated viewers that anything was wrong with our otherwise loved up comPondians.

Problem is, this relationship breakdown feels inherently artificial, engineered to add a sub plot to this otherwise Daleky tale. The antidote to the nanocloud turning you into a human with Dalek appendages, is love, apparently. So when Amy is threatened with Dalekisation, getting her to reignite her love for Rory is crucial to saving her life.

Problem is, I never really believed they fell out of love. The reason proffered for the break up is that Amy staged a pre-emptive eviction of Rory because he wanted kids she couldn’t biologically produce. This just doesn’t seem like something which would break them up. Surely, the Amy and Rory we know would talk it through. Rory, you’d think, would support Amy, not reject her. Besides, it’s not like the only way to have kids is the old fashioned way. My impression is that couples fray when one partner doesn’t want kids, not when one can’t have kids.

Maybe the problem is we didn’t see Amy and Rory gradually slide into marital discord. We only saw them being perfectly happy together, then divorced, then perfectly happy again. And while it’s interesting to see Doctor Who try its hand at interpersonal drama, the Ponds’ separation seems inherently false. It’s like the Ponds’ grief over losing their baby daughter; it’s just too big a problem to fit into the show’s format, where the adventures must roll inevitably along, pausing not to dwell on emotional distress.

“It’s not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow tie. Don’t give me those big wet eyes, Raggedy Man,” says Amy.  “It’s life. Just life.” Except it’s not, is it? Because if it was, it would be long and protracted and painful, and it wouldn’t necessarily end cleanly and happily in time for the next episode. And the ultimate irony? The Doctor does actually fix it, with a twiddle of his bow tie. Pah.

But… having not so long ago catalogued Doctor Who‘s post-coital scenes, I was delighted to spot a pre-coital one. When the repaired Ponds get dropped off at home at story’s end, Amy shoots Rory a loaded look and heads into a house. Rory’s clearly got the message and has the very pleased look of a man whose drought has broken. Ah, marriage.

RANDOM QUESTION: Why does the Doctor tell Amy that they need to make the Daleks remember her? I must be missing something. Answers in the comments, please.

LINK TO Knock Knock: humans turning into monsters.

NEXT TIME: let’s end on a cliffhanger. It’s one of the stories I’ve referred to above.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mostly dead, slightly alive and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (2010)

You can’t kill the Doctor. Because he’ll just regenerate. So by extension, there’s no use threatening to kill him. The audience knows he’ll be back next episode. Threatening the Doctor is inherently undramatic. Might as well not even bother.

Companions though, are a different story. They are fair game. And the death of a companion can have great impact. Although the merits of Earthshock are much debated, it showed how killing off a companion could pack an emotional punch and shake up this otherwise cozy series. Its influence on new Who is palpable. Even now, the death of a companion is something the new show flirts with regularly.

Except that new Who is more Mindwarp than Earthshock. It is yet to have the guts to definitively kill off a companion. It prefers the faux death of companions. Just as Peri’s death turned out to be a convoluted lie, so nearly every 21st century companion has had some “get out of death free” card. Rose didn’t die at Canary Wharf, but escaped to a parallel world. Jack died and was resurrected, many times over. Donna didn’t die but had her memory erased. Amy died but was brought back to life by a big box. Clara died but her death was stalled by the Time Lords and now she rides again.

And Rory. Sweet deathless Rory. As the Silence says, he’s the man who dies and dies again. When he’s thinking of jumping off the side of a building in The Angels Take Manhattan, he’s even self aware enough to joke about it. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is only his third story as a companion, but he’s already died twice (a dream version of him fell to dust in Amy’s Choice). Another dream version of him will die in The Doctor’s Wife and he nearly carks it in The Curse of the Black Spot. He’s king of the faux death.

New Who has adopted the faux death as a recurring motif. This should really be no surprise in a series which, at its heart, has a lead character who cheats death over and over again through regeneration. Rory, Clara et al are echoes of that major theme.

The faux death differs between the RTD and Moffat eras, though. In Davies’ time as showrunner there were two ways to not really die. The first, a la Rose and Donna, was for the death to be explained off as a technicality (you’re officially dead on our Earth, but not on a parallel world. Your memory’s wiped, so that version of you is dead). It’s a narrative sleight of hand; lead your audience to draw a conclusion and then subvert their expectations. The second was the Jack Harkness model; to be granted Doctor-like powers of reincarnation to become the man who cannot die (series regulars becoming super beings being another Davies motif).

The Moffat way of death is to more blatantly disregard its finality. In Moffat’s Who death is temporary. People frequently come back from death. Amy died in The Pandorica Opens, but in the very next episode it’s explained that she’s only “mostly dead” (in a line so outrageous it can only be forgiven because it’s obviously cribbed from The Princess Bride, in which Billy Crystal’s character Miracle Max says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive”). Put her back in the Pandorica and she comes back to life.

Often people come back as digital copies of themselves, like River and Danny Pink. And then of course there’s the multiversions of Rory and the resurrected Clara. Osgood appears to die but that was a Zygon (I think) and even the Brigadier comes back as a Cyberman. Nardole’s resurrection from within a big robot is still to be fully explained.

So RTD pretends he’s going to kill someone, then doesn’t. The Moff kills them and then brings them back anyway. Moff’s approach can be summed up in Amy’s line from The Big Bang, “if you can remember someone, they can come back”. And it’s that message which bothers me the most.

Sorry to get all, “won’t somebody think of the children?” for a moment but should Doctor Who be telling the younger members of its audience the death of a loved one is temporary? The fact is that you can remember someone you’ve lost all you like, but they cannot come back.

Not that I think Doctor Who has the power to delude children into thinking the dead can be resurrected. But how inexpressibly sad for a child who has lost a friend or family member – perhaps one in the middle of the grieving process – to turn to their favourite show and be presented with the glib, almost crass, suggestion that if you remember someone, they can come back from the dead. I think that might sour a young viewer’s opinion of the show forever.

How to fix this? It’s back to the Earthshock model. When you kill someone, they stay dead. As painful as it is. There may not be much to recommend Time-Flight, but when Tegan and Nyssa plead with the Doctor to change events and save Adric’s life, he says no, that’s not possible. And when the two women meet a phantom of the dead boy later in the story, they rightly walk through it for the illusion that it is. It hurts, but the right message. Dead is dead.

So while The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood may once have packed a punch, it’s now difficult to take its best moment, Rory’s demise, seriously. Just as it was difficult to take Clara’s death in Face the Raven (about which more NEXT TIME) seriously. Because we know that in new Who, death doesn’t stop a companion’s story.

But it should. It really should.

LINK TO Inside the Spaceship. The TARDIS in trouble, again.

 

 

 

Complexity, comprehension and The God Complex (2011)

There’s a hotel somewhere and in each of the rooms is someone’s worst nightmare. How about that for a central premise, eh? That is pure Doctor Who. Really, as a starting point, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Then you’ve got to justify it in some way that makes it sound reasonably feasible in an outlandish sci-fi kind of way. So the hotel is not a hotel, it’s a disguised spaceship. The spaceship is home to a creature which feeds off fear, and so it kidnaps people, confronts them with their worst nightmare and consumes all that tasty fear. So far, so Doctor Who.

But then it all gets a bit complicated.

It turns out it’s not actually fear that the creature wants to feast on. What happens is that when confronted with their deadliest fear, the victims fall back on their most deeply held faith, and that’s the food for the creature. It’s a faith eater, not a fear eater.

The moment this revelation is revealed is where The God Complex pivots on expectations. Problem is, it’s just a little too tricksy. I think that’s the moment where the audience is meant to go, “oh, of course! It all makes sense now!” In fact, it’s the moment where I suspect they go, “um, come again?”

And that’s a shame because when that happens, it’s stops being a quintessential Doctor Who idea. It suddenly got too complicated. It went a step too far. Before then – you’re trapped in a labyrinthine hotel with a creature that feeds off your terror! – it was easy-to-grasp, creepy stuff. Then it gained an unnecessarily complicated add on.

Perhaps that’s what makes an utterly Who-ish idea. Bizarre and compelling but able to be summed up in a sentence.

*****

Some people’s faiths are easier to comprehend than others. Clever clogs Rita (Amara Karan) is a Muslim, so we get that. Hipster nerd Howie (Dimitri Leonidas) is a conspiracy theorist. Well, I suppose it’s belief system of sorts, if you squint. Tivolian moleman Gibbis (David Walliams) comes from a species with an almost fetishistic desire to be invaded. That’s an amusing character trait, sure, but do we get to call that a faith?

Companion Amy (Karen Gillan) has faith in the Doctor (Matt Smith), to such an extent that a climax will need to be borrowed from The Curse of Fenric to help her break it and defeat the monster of the week. Oddly enough, the Doctor – or rather waiting for him to turn up – is also her greatest fear. Which gives us some insight into how obsessed she’s become with him. Luckily this seems to be something husband Rory (Arthur Darvill) has grown accustomed to, so isn’t too bothered by.

Rory doesn’t get a scary room of his own. As the Doctor points out, this is because he isn’t particularly religious. Which is all well and good, but are we saying Rory doesn’t believe in anything? If we can pass Gibbis’ love for domination off as faith, surely there must be something inside Rory which he might fall back on in a moment of great crisis. One would have thought perhaps his faith in Amy, although after we’ve seen how Doctor obsessed her subconscious is, maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t seem to have any deeply held connection to her. Poor faithless Rory. For such a caring, passionate guy, it just doesn’t seem right that he’s an empty, soulless shell.

*****

David Walliams is some late season stunt casting which is interesting in and of itself. Firstly, it’s a brave decision to cover the story’s major guest star in a mole mask, even if his distinctive profile is recognisable under all that latex. Still, it’s kind of apt given Walliams’ Little Britain pedigree for inhabiting outlandish categories. And since Tom Baker added his cheeky baritone to that series and outed Walliams and co-conspirator Matt Lucas as Who-heads (as if The Web of Caves wasn’t enough), it was probably inevitable that they’d end up on the show. And now Lucas is a regular on the show. Is Walliams envious? Surely a Whoside reunion is inevitable.  Little Gallifrey, perhaps.

Another name which jumps off the cast list is Spencer Wilding. It’s a name tailor made for an actor, so it’s just as well this 6’ 7” man mountain gave up kick boxing. Wilding plays the Minotaur, and is such a giant that when the series employs him, they can do enormous brutish creatures without resorting to CGI. The God Complex is the first of three big badasses he plays for the series (he’s also the Wooden King and Ice Warrior Skaldak) over a short period of time, so that oversize aliens briefly become a series motif. It’s the Spencer Wilding era, as I think we should call it. (Also fact fans, he’s the second actor to play both a minotaur in Doctor Who and be the body of Darth Vader.)

We’re also at the beginning of another mini-tenure, the Nick Hurran era. Hurran’s directorial style – full of inventive, suspenseful shots and rapid cutting between shots – marks him out as a standout talent in this and his other episode this season, The Girl Who Waited. He quickly becomes the go to guy for the series’ showcase episodes and gets the prime gig of directing the 50th anniversary special. This is a director the show’s invested in. Where’s he gone, I wonder? Some shrewd and handsome fellow once asked Steven Moffat in DWM why directors seem not to linger on the show for longer than a few episodes. “Bloody good question,” Moffat replied, so we might surmise that even the Boss doesn’t know where he’s hiding.

*****

There are so many minotaurs already in Doctor Who and so it doesn’t entirely surprise when The God Complex feels obliged to shout out to one them. “Distant cousin of the Nimon,” the Doctor name drops. “They descend on planets and set themselves up as gods to be worshipped.” Despite the fact that The Horns of Nimon is a story the series is rarely in a rush to remember, that does sound like a classic Doctor Who idea.

“Which is fine, until the inhabitants get all secular and advanced enough to build bonkers prisons,” the Doctor goes on. And once again that crystal clear idea gets muddied by over complication. This episode. It just doesn’t know when to stop.

LINK TO Deep Breath: The God Complex  has pictures of Silurians and Sontarans, and Deep Breath  has Vastra and Strax.

NEXT TIME: Anyone for tennis? Failing that, how about The Stones of Blood?

The Doctor, a douchebag and Deep Breath (2014)

deepbreath

So here we are. Awaiting Peter Capaldi’s last season. Knowing it will soon be time to bid him farewell. Doesn’t seem that long ago that Deep Breath introduced him to us. The Twelfth or is it Thirteenth or is it Fourteenth Doctor.

Doctors. Aren’t there a lot of them these days? It wasn’t so long ago that if you were publishing a Doctor Who reference book of some kind you only had to find room on the cover for eight floating heads. I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover of The Time Lord Letters but it really had to work hard to squeeze twelve Doctors onto that cover. Could have been worse if they included John Hurt. Peter Cushing was presumably never in the running.

And how many are we going to get to? 20? 30? At which point does it become unfeasible to keep ranking Doctors by favourite? It’s still just about possible to have a favourite Doctor, a second favourite Doctor and all the way down to twelfth (or thirteenth, or fourteenth). How are we going to do that when there are 37 or something? Sylvester McCoy used to wryly comment on fans telling him he was their fifth favourite Doctor. How much more unedifying to be someone’s 23rd favourite Doctor.

Surely it will become the case that we start to group Doctors into eras, simply to cope with the weight of numbers. People might say they like the Seventies Doctors, or the Noughties Doctors (or the naughty Doctors. That could be a thing) Or perhaps it will be that we start grouping them by type.

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the type that plays hard to like. We might link him with Doctors like William Hartnell and Colin Baker, through whose gruff exteriors companions and audiences alike have to excavate to find the charming, enchanting Time Lords underneath. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that fans might like this type of Doctor over the young, dashing type (your Davisons, Tennants and McGanns) or your outwardly wacky but inwardly devious type (your Troughtons, McCoys and Smiths). Lord only knows what type Tom Baker is. All three at once, maybe.

The coming of Capaldi in Deep Breath signalled not just a change of Doctor, but a change of type of Doctor. For a formidable eight years the Doctor had been young and accessible. A pin-up, and not just for the readers of Doctor Who Magazine. Capaldi was designed to be a complete change.

The oldest actor to take the part since Hartnell. The one with the most established televisual identity, thanks to his bravura performance as the foul mouthed blow torch of a political adviser Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. An artist, a musician, a director. A goddamn Oscar winner. And a Doctor Who fan to boot. The fact that he was to be a radical change of main character mattered little, because everyone – everyone – was convinced that this man was utterly right for the part. For many who had never been comfortable with the Doctor being the young photogenic type, the return to an older Doctor and the gravitas that brought to the part was long overdue.

There was no doubt, as Deep Breath aired. We had absolutely the right man for the job.

But since then, I think it would be fair to say the shine has gone off the show in some ways. Not, I hasten to add, because Capaldi has proven to be a substandard Doctor. You only need to read my post on Heaven Sent to know that I’m a P-Cap fan. Still though, ratings are down and I notice that among my not-we friends who are casual viewers of the show, their enthusiasm has waned since Smith sailed. For a while there it seemed like everyone was a Doctor Who fan. Now it seems to becoming less mainstream, more niche, more the cult series of old.

Sure, it’s hard for a series to maintain maximum appeal over more than a decade. Still, might it not have something to do with casting a Doctor who’s more brusque, more aloof and altogether harder work than audiences have been accustomed to? Could it be that we have a Doctor that fans love but the general public are not as keen on?

And so maybe we have a new type of Doctor again. The “discerning choice” type of Doctor. The connoisseur’s Doctor.

****

Deep Breath is all about someone getting used to a new type of Doctor. Clara (Jenna Coleman) has really been thrown by this regeneration, despite being the one companion to have met all the previous Doctors in a creepy, stalker-ish, I’ve-ended-up-an-extra-in-Dragonfire kind of way. She held a flame for the last Doctor (well, he was the pin-up type) and now, as she says, he’s got old and grey. Madame Vastra (Neve MacIntosh) has to have a stern talk with her about how the Doctor’s not young, has never been young and is actually a mountain face (or something like that). It does feel a bit like the audience is also being reminded that the Doctor can be something other than young and spunky.

Over the course of the episode, Clara perseveres with the Doctor while he behaves intolerably to her. He runs away from her, no less than three times. He abandons her to the mercies of the Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinando) to endure a terrifying interrogation with no explanation. And while he returns to save her, there’s never an apology or a comforting word.  It’s not just that this Doctor is less user friendly than before. It’s also that he’s a bit of a douchebag.

At the end of the episode, the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) makes an unexpected reappearance to ask Clara to forget all the crummy things this new Doctor has done to her and give him another chance. It’s a risky gambit – there would be at least some of the audience wishing he’d not left. But he’s convincing enough for Clara to hang around and hear the new Doctor ask her to, “just see me”. We’re not a million miles away from McCoy’s declaration at the end of Time and the Rani when he promises companion Mel and through her the audience that he’ll grow on them.  It’s a plea to the audience to stick around.

Those who did, I’m sure, have only been rewarded by P-Cap with a performance which has developed and matured over time. Those who haven’t, and the ratings show there have been a few, have really missed out. They probably lacked the confidence of the fans who know that the Doctor can be, at times, a douche but he won’t always be. We know he makes up for it in other ways and that at heart, he cares deeply about doing what’s right. But we can hardly blame a casual audience if they don’t, as Clara does, wait around to find that out.

LINK TO The Celestial Toymaker: both feature characters called Clara.

NEXT TIME… How can you be excited about a rubbish hotel on a rubbish bit of Earth? Let’s find out by developing The God Complex.

Press Gang, continuity errors and The Curse of the Black Spot (2011)

curseblack

So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Filmic references, monsters drawn from mythology, more misfiring technology and more errant children.

But bugger all that for a moment. Let’s talk about Press Gang.

Press Gang was Steven Moffat’s first TV series which ran from 1989 to 1993 on ITV. Co-created with his father Bill Moffat, it’s a fascinating piece of work. Its premise was the ongoing adventures of a group of plucky teenagers running a school newspaper. It was smart, witty, engaging and utterly implausible.

This student newspaper (the Junior Gazette) was run as a faux newsroom, as regimented as any professional paper. There was a design department and sales department, and the students seemed to work on this paper with a zeal which many paid journos wouldn’t bother with. They seemed to work all hours too and the stories they chased often were real world news stories, rather than what was on the school canteen menu that week.

Despite the craziness of the premise, it was compelling viewing. The cohort of characters Moffat created to staff this teenage fantasy of a news room, were stellar. Acerbic editor Lynda Day (Julia Sawalha) had a stormy romantic relationship with leather jacket wearing bad boy Spike (Dexter Fletcher). There was sensible journalist type Sarah (Kelda Holmes), spunky designer type Julie (Lucy Benjamin – replaced midway through by the even spunkier Gabrielle Anwar), token black guy Frazz (Mmoloki Christie) and comedy capitalist Colin (Paul Reynolds). And Lee Ross, who plays the Boatswain in Black Spot was Kenny, perpetual nice guy, long suffering dogsbody to Lynda and sometimes songwriter and would be pop star. It was that kind of show.

It had the rarest of things: a cast of teenagers who were great actors. They created a terrific chemistry which each other and were engaging to watch. The plots were always just this side of believability, but the dialogue was snappy and quotable. Even in this early work, you can see that this is Moffat’s greatest strength. He was doing Sorkin before we knew who Sorkin was. Looking back on it, there’s a touch of The West Wing’s structure in Press Gang, with that small group of workers in strict hierarchy, fighting the good fight and who always manage to say the smartest, funniest thing at exactly the right time.

The Press Gang exposed dodgy businesses, abusive parents and all sorts of nogoodniks. A couple of episodes stick in the mind. There was the one where Spike was threatening to go back to his native America, and Lynda made a show of pushing him away, before slyly pickpocketing his passport in the final frame. There was the with Professor X (Michael Jayston) a deluded actor replaying his glory days as a childrens’ sci-fi hero. But the stand out episodes made up a two part story, about a masked gunman hijacking the newsroom, with all our favourite characters inside.

Press Gang often played with narrative form, and in this two-parter, we started at the funeral of one of the newsroom staff. With the gunman’s siege played in flashback, Moffat gradually allowed us to see each of the regular cast, one by one at the funeral. As each appeared, it was a signal that they must have survived the siege, thus whittling down the possibilities of which of our favourites had bitten the dust. I won’t spoil the outcome for you if you haven’t seen it, because its ingenious and worth experiencing fresh. But suffice to say, it’s got a corker of a resolution.

In those tense scenes in the newsroom, where our heroes seek to reason with, outsmart and overcome their assailant, fiery Lynda at one stage launches into one of her trademark verbal rants. Earlier in the episode, we’d learned that she’d gotten in trouble from some boring adult figure of authority for throwing an ashtray in frustration with someone. The more she shouts at the gunman, the more it seems he might crack and shoot her. Colin, who has been injured, whispers something to Kenny, and Kenny says to Lynda, ‘don’t throw the ashtray’. Lynda gets the message and calms down. What a great line. I’ve always carried that with me. Even now, there are days when I remember that sage advice, and think to myself, don’t throw the ashtray.

It’s surprising more Press Gang alumni haven’t made it onto Doctor Who (although Julia Sawalha was in that other Curse, the one of Fatal Death.  And Lucy Benjamin was in Mawdryn Undead, oddly enough.) But hey, maybe there’s still time as Moff still has a series in him. My vote’s for Gabrielle Anwar. Please Moff? Please?

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The other piece of Lee Ross related interest in Black Spot is that he’s at the centre of a massive continuity error. Not the sort of continuity error that Doctor Who fans care about, like when someone mispronounces Metebelis or Atlantis is destroyed three times. Instead it’s the sort of continuity error normal people care about, like when someone’s wearing an enormous coloured scarf outside the TARDIS, then walks into the control room and the scarf’s hanging on a hatstand (apologies, The Invasion of Time).

Midway through this episode, Lee Ross’s character, the swarvy Boatswain just disappears. One moment he’s barricaded in the magazine with the Ponds (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill), and has suffered a slight cut, which will be enough for the mysterious Siren (Lily Cole) to emerge from something shiny and take him. The next, he’s gone and that’s the last we see of him until the episode’s end when we find he and the rest of the crew have survived the Siren’s ministrations. This story forgets to show us what happened in between.

It’s apparently a mistake made in the editing; and it says something about the pace of making Doctor Who that even with all resources the thrown at it, inevitably booboos slip in. But it’s one of a couple of important moments which are left off screen, such as when Rory nearly drowns having fallen overboard and we don’t see any of it. Then there’s the bit near where the Siren comes for pirate Mulligan (Michael Begley) and all we see is her ethereal light shining out from under a door. I suspect these aren’t stuff ups, as much as budget easing expediencies.

So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Monsters and errant children and all that. And I want to talk about trivia involving Lee Ross. This blog’s not called randomwhoness for nothin’ y’know.

LINK TO Four To Doomsday: in both, the TARDIS is absconded with mid story.

NEXT TIME: With the big sad eyes and the robot dog? It’s time for a School Reunion.

Tombs, moonbases and Nightmare in Silver (2013)

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Moffat’s earliest Who memory is of watching Patrick Troughton and wondering where the real Doctor, William Hartnell, had gone.  …The Doctor Who of the 1960s cemented Moffat’s idea of perfect televisual fear. “It was terrifying,” he says. “It wasn’t the camp or sweet or nice thing it became for a while afterwards. It wasn’t improving or good for you, it just wanted to scare the crap out of you. It was the bad boy of children’s television.”

There is something in this snippet of an interview with The Guardian’s Andrew Harrison, which tells us something about showrunner Steven Moffat’s ambitions for Nightmare in Silver, and perhaps for Doctor Who more generally. There is in him, I think, an ongoing urge to recapture that perfect televisual fear referenced above.

One of the stories the young Moff watched and loved was The Tomb of the Cybermen. He has spoken and written about his admiration for it time and again. It clearly made an impression on him, because the Cybermen are a recurring feature of Doctor Who under his watch. He’s included the Cybermen in every season of Doctor Who that he’s produced except Series 9 (and even then one makes a cameo appearance in Face the Raven).

Reading between the lines, I don’t think he felt, as Series 7 loomed, that he had yet done them justice, and recaptured that terrified sensation he remembered as kid. When he was briefing Neil Gaiman about writing his sophomore episode of Doctor Who, he instructed, maybe even pleaded with him, to “make the Cybermen scary again”. He might have just as well said, ‘give me the feels like when I was 7 years old’.

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Gaiman knew exactly what he meant. Not for nothing does this episode start on a replica of Earth’s moon, as this interview on Collider.com indicates.

“When I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan … I remember The Moonbase, the second outing of the Cybermen.  … I was terrified of them.  I was much more scared of them, in a way, than the Daleks because they were quiet and they slipped in and out of rooms.  It was very off-putting.

Gaiman tries a number of tricks to bring the scares back. The first is the incongruous setting of Hedgewick’s World, a children’s fun park gone to seed. This is a planet on which the fun and games of childhood have become corrupted and threatening. It’s a world filled with the stuff of bad dreams: waxwork museums, broken amusement rides and dormant Cybermen waiting to spring to life. So far, this isn’t so different from a Troughton-esque world of shadows and perils, like a long forgotten tomb or an underground railway tunnel.

Gaiman’s next gambit though takes us away from the Cybermen of the 60s. He innovates the Cybermen, giving them new and deadly features. This includes the ability to move at super speed making them inherently different from those models which lumbered into the Moonbase. Gaiman’s versions also are able to detach hands and heads from their bodies with deadly effect. Their 60s cousins could never do this, but it does call to mind that in their original conception, the Cybermen were a worried reaction to the replacement of body parts with technology.

The Cybermats of Tomb and The Wheel in Space had been made over in the previous season’s Closing Time, as piranha like toys. Here, Gaiman reimagines them as Cybermites, miniature insects which infest buildings and crawl through people’s clothes. It’s a successful reinvention, one that plays on a common phobia more potently than the old C-mats did. The Cybermen themselves had also had a sleek new refit, but they were always changing their look in the old series so that has less of a feeling of innovation, and more of tradition reasserting itself.

Then there’s the inclusion of children Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson) and Angie (Eve de Leon Allen) into this world of danger and mayhem. As we’ve noted before, children are a hallmark of Moffat’s Who and we’re often invited to see the Doctor and the wickedness he combats through their eyes. Rarely though, are they subjected to physical attack or seriously endangered. Here though, both children are partly cybernised, technology grafted onto their heads. Those kids watching Moonbase and Tomb are sucked through the television and into Doctor Who in Nightmare in Silver.

Finally there’s the infiltration of the Doctor (Troughtony Matt Smith) by the Cyberiad. Humans taken over by Cybermen are familiar from all four Troughton Cybertales, and many others throughout Whostory, but we’ve never seen them infect the Doctor. The result is a twisted version of the Doctor, sitting within this twisted vision of an amusement park. The Doctor’s internal mental battle with Mr Clever might be the detail, but the broad brush strokes to keep the kids behind the sofa, is an evil version of daffy old Matt Smith, roaring in anger and delighting in carnage.

So that’s how Gaiman answered Moffat’s challenge, by throwing everything he had at it. Question is, was the Moff satisfied?

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Well, I don’t think so. In a recent DWM, Moffat admitted to himself and us that he’d been trying to remake Tomb every year of his showrunnership. If the attempts were The Pandorica Opens, Closing Time and then Nightmare in Silver, surely if he felt one had been successful in recapturing that perfect televisual fear, there would be no need for him to finally write his own fully fledged Cyberantic Dark Water/Death in Heaven?

That last one had Cybermen emerging from Tomb like cubicles, people infected by Cyber poisoned liquid ala The Moonbase and marching down St Paul’s Catherdral’s steps like The Invasion. It had Cybermen flying about the place, converting the dead and digging themselves out of graves. If this didn’t make the Cybermen scary, what on Telos is going to satisfy Moffat’s desire to match that Tomby magic?

We may yet find out. That bad boy of the bad boy of children’s television has one more season to go.

LINK TO Father’s Day: children in danger.

NEXT TIME: It’s always the innocent bystander who suffers eventually. We travel to a Colony in Space.