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Afterwards, afterwords and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012)

Doctor Who - Series 7

Hello, old friend. And here we are, you and me, on the last page. Well, not so much you. Because I’m the one who’s been abandoned in New York 1938. I’m on the last page, you’re stlll… well, who knows how many pages into your book. Probably somewhere in the middle.

Talking of books, how did you not realise that book you were suddenly so into was by River? It was written by someone called Melody, and if that wasn’t a big enough tip off, it had a picture of River on the cover. I mean, come on.

By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone. But we’re not worried, because you can just come back and get us. I know you said all that stuff about not being able to change history, but that’s got to be a load of tosh, because you do that all the time, right? It’s all you ever talk about, with your “time can be rewritten” guff.

There is that problem about the TARDIS being unable to land in New York in 1938. Fair enough, so let’s do this. We’ll wait a year, then you can come and get us. Or we’ll go to Toronto, and you can pick us up from there. Or travel back to New York in 1937, park the TARDIS and come wait it out with us for a couple of years. Or travel back in time and mail us a vortex manipulator (because Rory tells me it’s like a motorbike through traffic). Or actually, just ask River to come back and get us. Anyway, point is, there are about a hundred ways to get us out of here, so just do it OK?

Sometimes I do worry about you, though. I think once we’re gone, you won’t be coming back here for a while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Because somehow, solitude has come to mean that you start to go bad and you get grumpy. It used to mean you just mucked around for a bit by yourself, but now it’s the end of the freakin’ cosmos.

Don’t be alone, Doctor. Maybe what you should do is go and find yourself a new companion. Make sure she’s a pretty girl (what am I saying? You’re the last person I need to remind of that.) Find one who embodies some enigma you need to solve. Find one who is feisty and flirtatious and keeps changing careers… oh hang on, that’s me. Just come back and get me. That’s the simplest thing to do.

And do one more thing for me. There’s a little girl waiting in a garden. She’s going to wait a long while, so she’s going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. But maybe on second thoughts don’t, because that will completely screw up my timeline, won’t it? Because if you go and talk to her, while she’s waiting in that garden, I’ll never become the girl who waited. And besides that, it’s just a bit insensitive. Because she’s actually waiting for you to come and take her away, so if you just come to chat with her for a bit, that will be deeply disappointing to her. Well, whatever. You can sort all that bit out. Time can be rewritten, etc.

Tell her a story. Tell her that if she’s patient, the days are coming that she’ll never forget. Tell her she’ll go to sea and fight pirates. Actually, don’t tell her that one. It was the fake gooey me who did that. And anyway, it’s rubbish.

She’ll fall in love with a man who’ll wait two thousand years to keep her safe. Though actually, he doesn’t really, does he? Because time gets rewritten and it never happens. Hint hint. Hurry up.

Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest whale who ever lived and save a painter in outer space. Wait, hang on a bit. Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived and save a whale in outer space. Maybe don’t tell her she’ll be forced to give birth to a hitherto unknown baby in space hospital and then forced to give that baby up and be unable to conceive any more children. That might put her off the whole thing.

Tell her this is the story of Amelia Pond. And this how it ends. Except it can’t, can it? Because this ending’s nonsense and makes a mockery of everything you’ve said for the last few years for the sake of a contrived tearjerker of a farewell. I think she’ll feel really cheated by that. So just come back and rescue us and we’ll think of another way for it to end.

More fittingly, Rory and I would probably have just decided that our last encounter with the angels was just one close shave too many, and decided to stay at home, hanging up our travelling shoes forever. And that would be great, right? Because isn’t just utterly fairy tale? Don’t all the characters in fairy tales grow up eventually and live happily ever after? It can still be dramatic, a big gut-wrenching decision. Hey, you could even still have your tearjerker ending; you can watch us grow old together through the years, and feel the slow aching despair of watching your best friends take the slow path.

Or if we really are trapped in some temporal life sentence, tell you what… pilot the TARDIS back to somewhere (or somewhen) nearby, catch the train into New York and spend the rest of our lives with us here. We’ll get into all sorts of hijinks. I’m sure there are plenty of alien incursions into New York which need repelling. Think of it as a kind of spin-off from our regular adventures.

Plus Rory says that if he has to sit out a lifetime in the 20th century, he sees no reason why you shouldn’t as well. You floppy haired dingus.

LINK to Time-Flight: one mentions New York and the other’s set in it.

NEXT TIME… A party in the nineteen twenties, that’s more like it. We solve the puzzling case of The Unicorn and the Wasp.

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Towers, telephones and The Bells of Saint John (2013)

stjohn

They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. Steven Moffat.

The little Spandrells are watching a show at the moment called Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures. In it, an odd looking man (all teeth and curls, like a young Tom Baker) who works in a museum, travels back to the time of the dinosaurs to have some mildly educative adventures. He travels in time via a grandfather clock, which sits incongruously on whichever ancient landscape it arrives in. A TARDIS rip off, if I ever saw one.

Except, it works in a different thematic way to the blue police box exterior of the TARDIS. The grandfather clock very clearly says, it’s about time, kids. But when they made Doctor Who, they didn’t give him a clock, they gave him a police box – an everyday sight, a public object, an outpost of authority and a very British innovation. It symbolised lots of things, but what it didn’t do was baldly state, this is a time machine.

So, no clock. And crucially, no telephone either. It had no communications link back to 1960s England, or indeed any of its destinations. This police box was cut off from everything. Classic Who was made in the days when to conceive of a telephone was to imagine your handset connected to every other one by a complex array of cables. No such cable stretched to Skaro or Marinus. In fact, it takes until Logopolis for the show to visually acknowledge that police boxes even had phones. The TARDIS certainly didn’t.

By the 21st Century, things have changed, and the TARDIS is as connected as any other aspect of our modern lives by telephony. By the phone in the police box’s little exterior cupboard, by the one on the console, by various companions’ mobiles and even by the Doctor’s. The Bells of Saint John takes its title from the TARDIS’s phone (the little cupboardy one) and from the life-changing call which comes through on it, from impossible girl Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) to the Doctor in medieval seclusion (Matt Smith).

This seems like a particularly Steven Moffaty trait. After all, he first used this conceit of the exterior phone unexpectedly ringing in The Empty Childand returned to it inThe Time of the Doctor. But it was his predecessor Russell T Davies who first put a phone in the TARDIS in World War Three. And his supercharging of Rose’s Nokia 3801 in The End of the World confirmed that in this new version of Who, our heroes were not as cut off from their homes and loved ones as their 20th century counterparts were. They could call across space and even time. Like E.T., they could phone home.

This makes sense. The Doctor has a machine which can traverse the universe and its entire history. Technology way beyond our grasp. Of course, he’d have a phone. It would be kind of weird if he didn’t.

But that’s not why the TARDIS is a phone box; it’s not a symbol of communication. It’s not a lifeline between us and the Doctor. It wasn’t, in its original conception, a place you could call to or from for help. In fact, because it was explicitly disconnected from everything else in the universe, the fact that the police box had a useless phone reinforced how isolated our heroes were. The one thing they couldn’t do was call for help.

It may seem like a small detail, but giving the TARDIS telecommunications changes the show. Once you can, ahem, call the Doctor, he becomes the hero you can summon when needed. Winston Churchill, for instance, calls directly through to the console. Clara calls when she needs help cooking a turkey. It’s the show’s equivalent of Batman’s bat signal. Phone him up and our hero comes running. Add this to our modern Doctors’ ability to steer the TARDIS with pinpoint accuracy, and we really are a long way from the show’s beginnings, where the police box was a cosmic lifeboat, tossed on the waves of time and space, directionless, contactless and utterly isolated.

****

Telephones and computers, and what they might do to us, was the source of much concern in 1966’s The War Machinesand it’s nice to see how little has changed by The Bells of Saint John. There’s always mileage for Doctor Who in technophobia, it’s just that by 2013, that fear is centred on wifi. There’s still a big tower though, from which the bad guys can broadcast their evil, brain harvesting scheme.

The Shard, like the Post Office Tower back in ‘66, represents another concern of modernity. In The War Machines, it was technology itself which grew a mind of its own and got ideas above its base station. Here, it’s technology wielded by a corporation, from within a monolith celebrating capitalism. It’s the stuff of conspiracy theories; shadowy suits manipulating us with a casual swipe up or down on an iPad. They can even make aeroplanes fall from the sky. This is playing on very contemporary fears.

It makes sense that here is where the Great Intelligence should make its return. Being a formless yet sentient spirit, it seems right that it now should lurk within the Cloud, like some particularly malignant piece of code. Certainly, it seems more fitting than in The Snowmen, where it represented the Victorian fascination with the paranormal (if you squint). Funnily enough, though, that’s what the Intelligence was in its 60s conception – a mystic supernatural presence from beyond the astral plane, not a ghost hiding in the machine. But – spoiler alert – we’ll get there is a couple of posts’ time.

For now, let’s just reflect on another of this episode’s big flashy statements. Never mind a telephone, this Doctor’s got serious technology and a motorbike! He rides up the side of the Shard with only a perfunctory line about anti-gravs to cover the implausibly of it all, running straight over the shiny surface of capitalism with those big rubber tyres. “Can he actually do that?” asks an astonished supporting character. Dude, this guy’s an ancient alien superhero with a time machine, a magic wand and a direct line through to his snog box. What can’t he actually do?

Yup, times have really changed.

LINK TO Amy’s Choice. Both Matt Smith stories, and hooray for an easy link.

NEXT TIME…God save the Queen, it’s Empress of Mars.

Sliding Doors, Family Feud and Amy’s Choice (2010)

amy choice

Way back in Four to Doomsday, someone – Persuasion, I think – described love as the exchange of two fantasies. As it happens, it’s also an apt description of Amy’s Choice, a beguiling little story which imagines a scenario whereby the underlying tension within its TARDIS crew, now consisting of three spunky 20 somethings, can be exploited.

That crew and the faultline that runs through it centres on Amy (willowy Karen Gillan). Amy’s natural desire to have her cake and eat it too means she’s travelling with both her fiancé Rory (boy next door Arthur Darvill) and her new crush, the Doctor (boy next century Matt Smith). It’s a bizarre love triangle for sure and her choice between the two is symbolised by the two dream worlds she’s asked to choose between by sinister genie, the Dream Lord (Toby Jones).

One scenario is set in sleepy old Leadworth, where the Ponds have settled into domestic stultification. Rory has an unconvincing ponytail, Amy an unconvincing baby bump but in this rustic little village, they have made a home. (Incidentally, there’s a funny upwardly mobile progression in companion’s homes in 21st century Who. Rose lived in a council estate, Martha in a city flat, Donna in a suburban house and now, Amy, in a big house in the country) Leadworth represents everything Rory is: stable, reliable and a bit dull. The quiet life.

Then, of course, the quiet life is disturbed by a group of deadly aliens hiding inside a bunch of retirement home residents. Turns out the Rory option is an actually a Doctor Who story by Douglas Adams.

The other scenario is set inside the TARDIS and is an analogue for the Doctor. In this scenario, there’s travel, adventure and technology. As Leadworth is Rory’s home, so is the TARDIS the Doctor’s. It speaks of excitement and thrills. The danger in this story is external, pseudo-scientific and oblique: a cold star threatening to freeze the TARDIS solid, with our heroes trapped inside. A cold, high place above the universe. So this scenario is a Doctor Who story by Christopher H Bidmead.

As much as Amy’s Choice is about showing us two types of suitor Amy’s attracted to and the internal conflict she’s grappling with, it’s also showing us two different ways of Doctor Who. Like flicking channels between a madcap alien invasion in an English village or a race against time in a doomed ship.

It’s Sliding Doors, isn’t it? But with Gwyneth Paltrow pursuing one lifetime living on The Pirate Planet and another in Castrovalva. Actually, that sounds immeasurably better than Sliding Doors. I need a parallel universe where Sliding Doors was like that! Then you could skip between two universes, one with the original Sliding Doors and one with my new Whoish version… and so it goes on until the whole thing has disappeared up its own causal nexus.

***

The third story being told here, is that of the Dream Lord. He’s a mysterious supernatural being with power over the TARDIS who wants to inflict mayhem on the lives of the Doctor and his companions by submitting them to a series of playful but deadly games of make believe. I suppose that viewed from that standpoint, the success of Amy’s Choice depends on how eager you were to see an updated, less racist version of The Celestial Toymaker.

The Dream Lord turns out to be one of Doctor Who’s favourite villainous archetypes; the twisted version of the Doctor himself. There’s enough to form Family Feud team – the Monk, the Master, the Valeyard, and now little old Dreamy. (“We asked 100 people what’s the most commonly used template for a Doctor Who villain! Survey says…”) It’s the most obvious kind of villain you can do, so it has to be wheeled out carefully and sparingly. Luckily, the Dream Lord’s a bit different from the rest of that dark clothed, maniacally cackling lot.

The Dream Lord’s point of difference from all these other dark Doctors is taunting. He spends the whole episode verbally tormenting the Doctor and his Ponds, needling away at every insecurity. The way he suddenly pops into being, just when our heroes are busy trying to do something, to hector and undermine them, is very unnerving; almost a visual representation of schizophrenia.

He also has a line in quotable, biting wit, particularly aimed at the Doctor. “The madcap vehicle, the cockamamie hair, the clothes designed by a first-year fashion student…”, the impish snide says, “I’m surprised you haven’t got a little purple space dog just to ram home what an intergalactic wag you are.” We’ve never heard anyone talk to the Doctor like that. And it hurts because it’s so very, very true.

But it’s also the trait which tips the Doctor off as to his tormentor’s true identity. As the Doctor, says “there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” So the Dream Lord is a personification of the Doctor’s self-loathing, and that’s something really new. Self-doubt, we’ve seen. But never the very human insecurity of criticising everything about yourself. It’s a novel twist on that conga line of wannabe Doctors.

So it’s a shame when he turns out to be nothing more than a speck of cosmic pollen with ideas above its station. He could have been a great returning villain, but instead he’s a figment of everyone’s imagination. Wasn’t too long ago we were randoming Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which has a similar, “it was all a dream” ending, and in both cases, the risk taken is that audience might think the whole affair inconsequential.

How Amy’s Choice manages to avoids the trap of seeming like a diverting but ultimately pointless fantasy, is that it has a real impact on our three heroes. The love triangle is resolved when Amy loses Rory thanks to the first of his many faux deaths. She decides she’ll do anything to have him back. She chooses home, not adventure. One fantasy has been exchanged for another.

LINK TO New Earth: nurses who would be doctors!

NEXT TIME… The Bells of Saint John are ringing.

Friendly buttons, family dramas and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013)

jttcott

I once said to a fellow fan that I disliked stories which end too conveniently. I think I used Terror of the Autons as an example. Towards the end of that story, there are Autons everywhere. The Nestene is descending. All’s going to hell in a handbasket. Then the Doctor (or the Master, to be precise) flicks a switch, the Nestene’s repelled and all the Autons topple over. All too handy, I complained. The other fan looked at me beadily and said, “you must dislike a lot of Doctor Who stories then.”

He had a point. But ever since the show returned in 2005, the use of a narrative shortcut to drive us to the climax has become more prominent. It happens at about the 35 minute mark. Usually, it’s a near-miraculous catch all development that saves the day in about 5 minutes, no matter how widespread the problem, how many monsters there are or how desperate the situation has become. Usually, it come courtesy of a gadget, or a magical substance or a reversal of the bad guy’s own powers.

I call it the “magic switch”, meaning there’s often a big switch to throw to solve the story’s problem. But it’d be equally valid to call it a “big friendly button”.

What then to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which blatantly uses a big friendly button to conclude its story? Openly acknowledges it. Puts it on screen and gives it a name. Rarely has the series so boldly referenced its own narrative limitations. Why on earth draw attention to it? Unless writer Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat were looking for a wry in-joke. “We’ve now reached the point in the episode for the magic switch, so here it is!”

I think it’s more than self-knowing commentary. I think the big friendly button is a cry of defiance. “We know!” our authors seem to be saying. “Of course, we know. But you find a way to build up a big, bold adventure story, throw everything under the sun in it, and then wrap it up neatly in 5 mins. So sometimes we use a big friendly button. Get over it! We do that sometimes.”

*****

Ages ago, before he made 7 years of Doctor Who, the Moff once made comment on the classic show’s occasional over concentration on the TARDIS as a setting for stories. “We kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe,” he confidently declared.

But then, of course, there’s this episode, where we explore the wardrobe extensively. In the pre-publicity, the Moff declared how he’d loved and now wanted to emulate the TARDIS tour section of The Invasion of Time, indicating a change of tune about the whole Narnia/wardrobe divide. I can understand the appeal. With an extensive world within the TARDIS, there’s a world of potential adventure in their too.

Stories which use the labyrinthine TARDIS corridors as a location apply slightly different emphases each time. The Invasion of Time uses it as the setting for a hunt/chase sequence. Castrovalva uses it as a confounding maze which ensnares unwary travelers. Way back in Inside the Spaceship it was not so much vast as claustrophobic, a place which played tricks on the mind. The same all the years later in The Doctor’s Wife, where it also became a mental torture chamber for Amy and Rory.

It’s all of these things in JTTCOTT. But what it never feels like is the slow perilous climb down into the heart of the ship which the title suggests. It feels a bit like bait and switch, because the suggestion is that it’ll be a Jules Verne-style descent into the core of the beast, facing peril as our heroes break through each stratum.

Instead, it feels much more random and disjointed; not a descent deep into the craft as The Invasion of Time and Castrovalva felt like, but a journey twisting and turning in all sorts of directions. And maybe that’s appropriate, because can a multi-dimensional time ship be said to have a centre at all? Still, it doesn’t feel like a journey to anywhere in particular, but with a lot of interesting sightseeing along the way.

****

Our companions on this meandering expedition are the Van Baalen brothers: Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and Tricky (Jahvel Hall). Roughead salvage collectors, this story is the backdrop to a family drama which unfolds. It turns out that following an industrial accident, Tricky has been fooled into believing that he’s an android by Gregor. As an example of a commitment to gullibility in the face of easily accessible evidence, it’s right up there with Guy Crawford’s needless eyepatch and Countess Scarlioni’s alien marriage.

Gregor initially tries to pass it off as a joke that got a little out of hand, but later confesses he did it out of jealousy for their father’s respect. There are a couple of problems with this besides the simple straining of credulity. Firstly, the Van Baalen boys are sadly not interesting enough for us to care about their, admittedly unusual, inter-family dramas. Secondly, said dramas have nothing to do with the predicament at hand. When Gregor eventually fesses up to Tricky in a spare moment between set pieces, it should be a major revelation. But Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) who is a silent observer to this exchange, is leaning against a wall with a look that says, “and this effects me exactly how?”

****

But then, if any of this, or anything else about JTTCOTT bothers you, worry not – because none of it ever happened. Our big friendly button not only brought this story to a close, it also reset the whole affair. This kind of ending worries me more than the magic switch. If the story’s events were so inconsequential they can be erased at a moment’s notice – why were they worth watching in the first place?

All that’s left is a couple of Wizard of Oz style moments where characters kind of remember something happening to them, but can’t recall why. The Van Baalen brothers might even, if you squint, be stand-ins for the Tin Man (Tricky), the brainless scarecrow (Bram) and the cowardly lion (Gregor).  The Doctor, I suppose, has been our Wizard and Clara our Dorothy, although as I recall, Dorothy never got chased by time burnt zombie creatures and Clara doesn’t even have a little dog. And The Wizard of Oz didn’t hang around in the vehicle that transports its heroes to the site of the story. We kids want Oz, not the cyclone-borne farmhouse.

Or something like that. *Presses big friendly button*

LINK TO Planet of Fire: Companions with things burnt into their skin!

NEXT TIME: Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! We’re checking in for treatment on New Earth.

Zeg, Tarrant and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (2010)

pando opens 2

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg! We had best get on with organising this alliance of alien races for our latest campaign against the Doctor.

ZEG: Oh, bugger it! How did we get lumbered with this, Dalek Tarrant? I’ve already been doing overtime on the redesign of our casings!

TARRANT: Yes, and look how well that went down, Zeg.

ZEG: It was going fine till they made me add that hump on the back.

TARRANT: Anyway… what we need is an alliance of alien badasses that will scare the etheric beam locators off anyone who dares to question the might of the Daleks!

ZEG: Don’t we already have an alliance, lying about the place somewhere?

TARRANT: We used to have one, but it was pissweak. Remember? There was that spiny faced guy…

ZEG: Oh that’s right. And the seaweed in a big robe.

TARRANT: That big black Christmas tree…

ZEG: And that guy covered in half globes! He looked ridiculous!

TARRANT: So none of those numpties get invited again.

ZEG: All right, who do you want for this lot then?

TARRANT: Well, the Nestene Consciousness, I suppose, ‘cos we’re going to need duplicates.

ZEG: Wait a minute, don’t we make duplicates?

TARRANT: Yes, though lately ours have tended to have eye stalks erupt from their foreheads at inappropriate moments.

ZEG: Fair enough, it’s a terrible giveaway. Who else have you got?

TARRANT: Um, the Cybermen?

ZEG: Ooh, that’s going to be totes awks.

TARRANT: Why do you say that, Dalek Zeg?

ZEG: A few years back they proposed an alliance to us. And we exterminated their arses.

TARRANT: They won’t care.

ZEG: They might!

TARRANT: No, they literally won’t care. They can’t, remember? That’s their whole thing.

ZEG: OK, who else you got?

TARRANT: The Sontarans?

ZEG: Ugh. I don’t get those fuckers. They’re supposed to completely obsessed with that “interminable war with the Rutans” TM. But then they’re always getting involved in these other hijinks. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll jump at the idea. Anything to avoid actually prosecuting that war they’re meant to be a part of.

TARRANT: Silurians?

ZEG: Those lizard things? That’s going to be pain. We’re going to have to wake them up. Have you got a big drill or a cyclotron or something? Then we’ll have to explain the whole thing to them… They’ll want to do their whole, “kill all the apes and reclaim our planet” routine… On the other hand, they’re on their home planet, so we won’t need to pay their per diems.

TARRANT: Judoon?

ZEG: Didn’t you already say them?

TARRANT: No, I said Sontarans.

ZEG: What’s the difference?

TARRANT: Not a great deal. But the Judoon have better boots.

ZEG: Oh they’re the police ones, aren’t they? I’m not sure they’re going to want to be in a kind of super group of villains.

TARRANT: Sycorax?

ZEG: Those guys in the big flying rock? Jeez, if you want. None of that voodoo bullshit though. Just let ‘em stand at the back and keep quiet.

TARRANT: The Hoix?

ZEG: The who?

TARRANT: The Weevils?

ZEG: You’re just making shit up now.

TARRANT: Terileptils, Zygons, Chelonians, Drahvins…

ZEG: The Drahvins? Oh come on, I draw the fucking line. A bunch of skinny chicks with elaborate eye make up? Fat lot of use they’ll be. Are they bringing their special magnetic net?

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg, I sense you are not approaching this task constructively.

ZEG: Give me a fucking break, Tarrant. The bloody Drahvins? What a bunch of b-listers. It’ll be the freaking Slitheen next.

TARRANT: Well, actually…

ZEG: Seriously? Why not call the Bandrils? I hear they’ve been free since about 1985. What about the Vardans? I bet we can get the Krotons for equity minimum. Ooh, no I’ve got it… the Monoids! With their cattle prods of doom!

TARRANT: If this is the sort of attitude you brought to the redesign of our casings Zeg, I can see how we ended up looking like giant M&Ms.

ZEG: What’s all this in aid of anyway?

TARRANT: Well, it appears that the Doctor is going to bring about the end of the Universe.

ZEG: Hey, that’s our job!

TARRANT: I know, right? So we’ve got to prevent him from being able to do it.

ZEG: How so?

TARRANT: We’ll lock him in a big box.

ZEG: Genius. Where is this box?

TARRANT: Stonehenge.

ZEG: Um, why?

TARRANT: Well, a scenario has been constructed from the memories of the Doctor’s companion.

ZEG: And she once went to Stonehenge?

TARRANT: No, she liked Roman occupied Britain when she was a kid, and it’s kind of close by. Plus, she likes the box thing, so there’s that as well.

ZEG: But wait a minute, we think this will ensure the Doctor shows up?

TARRANT: It’s a trap the Doctor cannot resist!

ZEG: It just sounds a bit complicated, Tarrant. If we want the Doctor to show up, why don’t we just do something evil? He’s turned up every other time we’ve done that. Without bloody fail!

TARRANT: Yeah, it would be simpler but we just don’t have anything on the drawing board that’s ready to go.

ZEG: OK, so what’s the plan once the Doctor is inevitably drawn to this devious trap?

TARRANT: Well, we shove him in the box.

ZEG: And then?

TARRANT: That’s it.

ZEG: Right. It suddenly goes from hugely complicated to sort of alarmingly simple. And what do all the other alliance members do?

TARRANT: Well the Nestene duplicates…

ZEG: Which we could at a pinch supply ourselves….

TARRANT: Well, they’ll actually put him in the box. Bit hard with the old plungers, y’see.

ZEG: OK, and everyone else?

TARRANT: They just sort of turn up for a gloat.

ZEG: Right. Tarrant, you remember the last time we had an alliance? Remember what our alliance members did then?

TARRANT: Um yeah. They stood around a big desk for a bit. Then they went to a conference and clapped idiosyncratically. Then some of them betrayed us and had to be exterminated. And then we got bored of them and locked them all up.

ZEG: And none of them were strictly speaking necessary either were they?

TARRANT: Not critically, no.

ZEG: Tarrant, this is the dumbest thing we have ever done.

TARRANT: Says the Dalek who painted us the united colours of Benetton.

ZEG: Fair enough. Shall we just exterminate each other now?

TARRANT: Agreed.

*Ka-shoom! Screen goes negative*

LINK TO The Claws of AxosPresumably the Axons are in this formidable bunch of alien badasses somewhere. (With thanks to Will Brooks

NEXT TIME: Mercy, just look at this place. We unearth The Tomb of the Cybermen.

 

Toothless, spineless and The Vampires of Venice (2010)

vampires

In 2010, Doctor Who was catching up on the resurgent popularity of vampires. Twilight was, by this stage, a publishing and film phenomenon. True Blood was giving those who liked their vampire fiction a little less sanitised something to… oh god, I can’t stop it… get their teeth into. The Vampire Diaries was kicking around too, giving a more soapy take on bloodthirsty things. Fangs were on trend, so perhaps it was inevitable that new Who would get around to it.

Thing is, vampires bring with them two fundamental elements that Doctor Who has trouble with: blood and sex.

Blood is all but forbidden in new Who, even though it was, at times, splashed around liberally in the classic series. A family show in an early evening slot can’t show too much gore. Even today, blood is used sparingly and events which might produce some are cut around. When the 21st century version of the show had featured a bloodsucker – the carefully named Plasmavore in 2008’s Smith and Jonesthe fiend in question drank her victims’ blood with a straw pressed tight against a neck, and not a drop of red stuff was seen. So the monsters in The Vampires of Venice leave two discrete puncture marks on the skin, but little else. In a vampire story, the absence of blood in Doctor Who seems more conspicuous than ever.

The Saturnynes, however, are pointedly not vampires. They are hologram-disguised fish aliens. Which helps avoid the need to splash lots of blood around, but it does give this story a slight feel of bait and switch. C’mon, give us vampires in Venice! That’s what it said on the box and it sounded awesome! Don’t over complicate it with “they’re fishy aliens disguised as vampires for, um, some reason.” (See also writer Toby Whithouse’s next episode The God Complex for similarly unnecessary complications .)

So it’s a blood-lite affair, this ep. Sex, on the other hand, is much more familiar territory for Doctor Who. At least in a suggestive or metaphoric way, rather than through explicit demonstration. Sex, or at least sexiness, is all over The Vampire of Venice, and not just because it features a coterie of busty, spunky vampire chicks. Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory) is a flirty, seductive presence – not just with the Doctor (Matt Smith, with whom she goes as far as to suggest an, ahem, alliance) but also with her son. Not to mention that the whole plot is about her procuring wives for her fishy alien offspring.

Lust is coursing through everyone’s veins, like water through those Venetian canals. Our heroes aren’t immune, either; there’s the love triangle between Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill) and the Doctor. It starts when the Doctor gate crashes Rory’s stag night to break the news that Amy kissed him. Tact and timing; these have never been his strong points.

In your standard vampire story, you’d expect a strong male lead to seduce young ladies into inappropriate dalliances. Here, we have to make do with the Doctor, but he is still a source of temptation for Amy. If there’s someone who might get her into trouble, of both the romantic variety and the old fashioned dangerous variety, it’s him. 

The Doctor’s reaction to Amy’s amour is (again with trademark subtlety) to take Rory aboard the TARDIS and hope that a romantic getaway will rekindle Amy’s affection for her fiance. But it’s difficult to stay focused on the boy next door when there’s this other boy, just over there with two hearts and a time machine. Rory’s already got some tough competition and that’s before the script does its best to emasculate him.

A quick detour. Back in 2010, one of my mates was watching Doctor Who ardently in order to ardently watch Karen Gillan. After The Vampires of Venice went out, he texted me indignantly. “Rory is a soggy biscuit,” he complained. “Amy should dump him and go out with me.” And he was right (about the first bit. Definitely not about the second.) Rory’s repeatedly presented as less than a man and certainly no romantic match for Amy.

The evidence? As soon as they land in Venice, the psychic paper calls him a eunuch. Later on, no-one thinks it’s feasible that he could pass himself off as Amy’s fiance; he has to pretend to be her brother. The Doctor has a torch which is bigger than Rory’s, cue dick joke. He never gets to properly challenge Amy about her infidelity. He gets into a fight with a vampire and is hopeless. And the story ends with him admitting that he’s Amy’s “boy”. (The Doctor too, but as he just got to heroically save the day, we know that’s not true.)

So in a vampire story, where sex is a powerful theme and constantly reinforced, Rory is a cuckold. A couple of randoms ago, I was talking about how romantic rivalry brought out Danny Pink’s manipulative side and yes, that was icky. But Rory’s tendency to be a doormat isn’t great either. It doesn’t seem like how a fiance would react to infidelity, nor does this kind of walkover seem like someone Amy would be attracted to.

Luckily, as his time on the TARDIS goes on, we discover that Rory is not the soggy biscuit my mate claimed he was. But I sometimes wonder where his character would have ended up, had they not cast someone as skilled as Darvill. He brought such charm and comic timing to the role, that I suspect he ended up more heavily featured than was first intended. If Darvill hadn’t been so compelling, perhaps Rory might have been ditched at the altar, with Amy flying off with her Time Lord temptation.

But this emasculation of Rory has an interesting effect; it slightly desexualises the whole episode. It stops a Doctor Who story about vampires getting too raunchy, by adding a few jokes and about the henpecked husband to be. It’s like the fish aliens not quite being vampires, which takes the edge off an otherwise bloody tale. It all adds up to a sense of this episode not quite going the distance, of being slightly apologetic for what it is. A vampire tale that’s not really… no, stop it! Can’t help it… full blooded.

LINK TO Full Circle: watery monsters who aren’t what they seem.

NEXT TIME: we brave some freak weather conditions for The Claws of Axos.

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.