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Hawks, doves and The Christmas Invasion (2005)

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The ghost of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart hangs around the final scenes of The Christmas Invasion. Back in 1970’s Spearhead from Space, he mentioned how humans had been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. “We’ve drawn attention to ourselves,” he said ominously, moustache twitching with deep portent.

David Tennant’s skinny, sassy Doctor has just seen off the slave trading Sycorax in the space of about 10 minutes, but still he’s cautious. He all but quotes his old friend. Though he’s got quite the gob, so he uses far more words to say it: “And the human race is drawing attention to itself. Every day you’re sending out probes and messages and signals. This planet’s so noisy. You’re getting noticed more and more.”

His words spook Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton). It’s been a bad day at the office. She’s just been through an alien invasion she was powerless to stop, she’s seen two men die in front of her and had the fate of half the world rest on her ability to negotiate her way out of an impossible situation.  She’s been in charge when the Doctor didn’t show up, and it’s terrified her.

So she takes a decision to blow up the alien threat rather than let them escape. In doing so, she’s channeling he Brigadier. He took the same pragmatic choice when he blew up the Silurians, again in 1970, in a desperate attempt to end a story which had already gone on for seven episodes. The difference then was we never got to see the Doctor confront his military friend about his act of murder, masquerading as defence.

Here, the Doctor forces Harriet to justify her choice. This she does, with hawkish pragmatism. “You said yourself, Doctor, they’d go back to the stars and tell others about the Earth. I’m sorry, Doctor, but you’re not here all the time… They died right in front of me while you were sleeping. In which case we have to defend ourselves.” The Doctor is, of course, disgusted. “But that’s murder,” he said in 1970 and so he repeats, “that was murder” in 2005. Apart from that, he doesn’t bother to try to counter her arguments. He just starts tossing around threats.

More of that later. But first, it’s interesting that writer Russell T Davies is specifically referencing those two stories from 1970 (three, if we note that trouble with aliens abducting a British space craft was core to The Ambassadors of Death). He even goes to the extent of quoting them, almost word for word. He’s reminding us of the time when the Doctor had an uncomfortable relationship with his Earthbound allies. And also of a time when a new Doctor made a barnstorming entrance, signalling a major shift in the tone and focus of the series. David Tennant’s Doctor signals as significant a progression for the series as Pertwee, colour and exile to Earth did.

Tennant’s Doctor is different to Pertwee’s though, in that he’s unafraid to meter out punishment if you cross him. When the Sycorax leader goes back on his word to leave Earth, and instead redoubles his attack, the Doctor has no hesitation in triggering the trap door which sends the bad guy plummeting to the ground. “No second chances,” he says grimly. That goes for Harriet too.

As his argument with her escalates, he warns her of the consequences of messing with him. And when she shows no remorse, he decides to bring down her government by whispering six words in the ear of right hand man, Alex (Adam Garcia, formerly a red hot tap dancer back in Australia. Mrs Spandrell was very keen on him.) It’s a handy trick. I wish he would fall to Earth now and perform that same feat in the USA.

Anyway, the point is that this Doctor is not a man to cross.In some ways, that rift with Harriet marks the tenth Doctor out as political; he’s against pre-emptive military action. Or maybe it’s simpler than that – he just against the sneaky tactics of clobbering someone from behind.

Either way, he’s unafraid to lose friends when he thinks they’ve done the wrong thing. Later he watches Harriet on TV, flustered by questions about her health, engulfed in the PR storm he’s just conjured up with a six word magic spell. He stands there in his new glasses and paper Christmas hat and watches his former friend’s world collapse around her, and he’s unmoved.

This will of steel is something he has in common with his predecessor, who watched dispassionately as Cassandra burst apart and who dumped failed companion Adam back to Earth with window in his forehead. But then unlike the ninth Doctor, he does domestic. He has Christmas dinner with Jackie (Camille Coduri) and Mickey (Noel Clarke), something the last him flatly refused to do. Indeed his whole attitude to Jackie and Mickey has softened. He physically embraces them – again something he previously wouldn’t have had a bar of. So although he’s just as uncompromising as Dr 9, he’s a far more accessible and relaxed with his human buddies.

There’s one last moment that underlines Doctor Tennant’s refusal to let his human compadres take the easy way out. At the story’s end, when he goes to grab Rose’s hand to run off together for further adventures, she shies away a little because it means holding the hand he recently grew back. “That hand still gives me the creeps,” she says. But he doesn’t offer her the other one. He insists she takes the one that freaks her out. It’s a tiny little moment, but it just reinforces that this Doctor doesn’t let you off easy.

One last thing to note. This is the story which starts to develop Mickey and Jackie as characters, beyond being handbrakes on Rose’s TARDIS adventuring. Mickey gets his first heroic moment when he outmanoeuvres the robot Santas and Jackie plays both caring matriarch and comic relief (I particularly love her reminding Mickey to note down how much internet he uses, even though only moments ago they were nearly killed by a rampaging Christmas tree). They are, at last, the Doctor’s allies, Earth-bound but ready to help out when needed. Pertwee had his UNIT family. Tennant has the Tyler family. The Brigadier would be pleased.

LINK TO The Power of Kroll: both were originally broadcast on/around Christmas time.

NEXT TIME… The walls need sponging and there’s a sinister puddle. We’ll take care of it and The Caretaker too.

 

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Old days, new ways and School Reunion (2006)

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In New Who‘s first year, references to Old Who were few and far between. The odd Cyberman head, a fleeting glimpse of UNIT and a surreptitious mention of the Isop Galaxy were the few, whispered call outs to the show’s long heritage. New Who was like a teenager who has suddenly become cool, deliberately shunning any links to her previous dorky self. Don’t mention the old show, this reboot seemed to say. It’s not me at all.

School Reunion changed all that, with guest appearances from two figures which, at last, firmly linked the new series to the old. Showrunner Russell T Davies’ choice of returning characters is interesting. He could easily have gone with, say, the Brigadier or Susan Foreman or Ace, or indeed any of the surviving classic Doctors. But he went with Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and K9 (voiced by John Leeson).

In doing so, he links his version of the program, not just to all of classic Who, but a particular part of it. Sarah Jane was a crucial part of the early Tom Baker years, and K9 an integral feature of the later Tom Baker seasons. Between them, they span a period of the program fondly remembered by many adult viewers. And for younger viewers, they provide an entry point for the classic series. School Reunion is signalling the new show’s intention to be as fondly remembered as the Tom Baker episodes while fondly remembering them itself.

****

Sarah’s bittersweet meeting with the Doctor (a nascent David Tennant) is the standout element of this episode, contrasting strongly with cartoony main plot of bat creatures, brain slaved children and the quest for an oblique universe altering equation (“The Skasis Paradigm!” says the Doctor, appalled. I hate those moments when we’re supposed to react to some invented sci fi term like it means something.) You can keep the school, I’ll take the reunion, thanks.

Sladen brings an emotional depth to her character, which she was only ever allowed to hint at in the old series, and explore only in the dying minutes of her tenure. Forget all that unedifying and frankly sexist rivalry with new, younger model Rose (Billie Piper). What makes this story is Sarah’s letting long held trauma burst through her cool demeanour.

It doesn’t take long. Only seconds after meeting the Doctor, it’s bubbling to the surface. “I thought you’d died,” she sobs. “I waited for you and you didn’t come back and I thought you must have died.” Later she calms down, but still her dialogue is punctuated with the raw pain of someone abandoned.

SARAH: Did I do something wrong, because you never came back for me. You just dumped me.

DOCTOR: I told you. I was called back home and in those days humans weren’t allowed.

SARAH: I waited for you. I missed you.

DOCTOR: Oh, you didn’t need me. You were getting on with your life.

SARAH: You were my life.

So among all this nostalgia for the old days of Doctor Who, there’s the longing for past days of youth and adventure. “I got old,” Sarah admits at one point, as if shamefully acknowledging a human shortcoming. K9 too is worn down and tarnished. These are companions left damaged and bereft by their time with the Doctor and the message isn’t lost on Rose. “This is really seeing the future,” she says.

****

School Reunion asks us to remember Old Who, but selectively. Remember The Hand of Fear, it says. And what about The Invisible Enemy, that was a corker wasn’t it? But don’t remember The Five Doctors, because that would spoil the story.

We have to ignore The Five Doctors because School Reunion gets its emotional kick from the idea that Sarah hasn’t seen the Doctor since he left her behind on that street in Aberdeen. We should be recalling the image of Sarah left alone on that road, white tassly jacket, suitcase and stuffed owl. We shouldn’t be recalling that she did meet the Doctor again – a whole lot of them actually – for his twentieth birthday party.

We also have to buy into the new idea that Sarah held a strong romantic affection for the Doctor, as strong as Rose’s.

ROSE: What do I do? Do I stay with him?

SARAH: Yes. Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.

As the Doctor says goodbye, she admits she’s never found someone to settle down with. “Well, there was this one guy,” she says wistfully. “I travelled with him for a while, but he was a tough act to follow.”

Mrs Spandrell gets confused by this moment. She says incredulously, “Are they saying she was in love with Pertwee?” And she has a point, not because it’s hard to believe anyone falling for the Pert or for Tom Baker for that matter, but because Sarah’s relationship with the Doctor was always platonic. In her time with Tom, which this story is specifically asking us to recall, their relationship was one of two knockabout mates seeing the universe together. Never once was their the sense of a deeper connection, certainly not of the boyfriend/girlfriend vibe that Tennant and Piper cultivated.

Remember some things, School Reunion says. Forget others. And completely reimagine some more. Which shouldn’t bother us too much really, as that’s what Doctor Who does all the time.

****

Sladen was evergreen, but time is doing School Reunion few favours. Unusually, the art direction lets the side down, with dodgy school crests blu tacked to walls and corridors randomly painted a lurid green. The guest performances are also a tad hammy and some of the CGI effects, such as the climactic explosion, fail to entirely convince. This doesn’t feel like the bold, mature sci-fi drama presented the previous year.

Instead, it all feels a bit juvenile; appropriate enough for an episode set in a high school. But I mean ‘juvenile’, in terms of its intended audience; this feels like children’s TV. Still, something about it worked enough for the potential of Sladen and The Sarah Jane Adventures to shine through. That’s this episode’s real legacy; not that it at last paid respect to the old series, but that it showed how to create something new and exciting out of its greatest hits.

LINK TO The Curse of the Black Spot: both feature prominent roles for young boy characters (Toby and Kenny)

NEXT TIME: Lush, aggressive vegetation. A plant, a xerophyte to be precise! It’s Meglos, last Zolpha Thuran!

Cliffhangers, magic switches and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2006)

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In Doctor Who’s olden days, we had cliffhangers. We get them occasionally in New Who as well, but these days we’re more likely to get throw forwards, otherwise known as trailers. How much a throw forward is part of an episode is debatable; sometimes they add little to an otherwise just completed episode. But sometimes they bring something new and interesting to its dying seconds.

Army of Ghosts has a great cliffhanger and an intriguing throw forward. First though, let me witter on about how it gets to those, because this is a smartly structured episode. Writer Russell T Davies has no time to waste, so this week’s alien incursion is already well underway by the time the Doctor (David Tennant, at the end of year one) and Rose (Billie Piper, about to wave the show goodbye) arrive to visit Jackie (Camille Coduri, hooray). They learn about the infestation of ghosts and the Doctor sets about disproving it in a typical “I’m having none of that superstitious nonsense” kind of way.

The quest leads them to Torchwood, much hinted at during this season and about which we’ve been learning about throughout the episode. With the Doctor and Torchwood plot strands combined, Davies splits his story again almost immediately: the Doctor and Jackie discover Torchwood and its role in generating the ghosts, while Rose finds the mysterious sphere and former squeeze Mickey (Noel Clarke). So the stage is set for a two-pronged episode ending.

Meanwhile, Davies has been indulging in a little misdirection. The Doctor assumes that the Sphere is the work of the Cybermen, and Mickey guesses that it contains a big bad Cyber-daddy. The episode is approaching its end when the Cyberleader says they know nothing about the sphere, confounding (hopefully) audience expectations. We end on a double cliffhanger: the Doctor confronted with the prospect of millions of Cybermen around the world, and Rose trapped when a posse of Daleks emerge from the sphere. Fangasms worldwide.

Now for the throw forward, and specifically, its last seconds. Over shots of the Cyberleader, a Dalek and a worried looking Rose and Mickey, we hear a Cyberman saying: “Cybermen plus Daleks. Together we could upgrade the universe”. A tantalising ending, which raises the prospect of something new and nerdy; a match-up between the series two biggest baddies.

Again, its misdirection. No such alliance is forged in Doomsday. One is proposed by the Cybermen and brutally rejected by the Daleks. And of course, when you think about it, that makes sense. As Davies has pointed out, the Daleks are cosmos-conquering, time travelling geniuses. Cybermen are us with bits added. The former has no need for the latter.

But it also reminds us that Cybermen and Daleks are not the same; their technologies might be compatible, but they themselves are not. Davies emphasises that Cybermen are emotionless and Daleks are anything but. They are boastful, quick to anger, goading and they scream inside their bonded polycarbide armour. They can even be tricked into revealing their names by appealing to their pride. Sometimes, even in Doctor Who itself, the Daleks are portrayed as emotionless, rational robots, incapable of imagination and inventiveness. But that’s the Cybermen. Daleks are creatures of pure emotion, specifically hate.

Interestingly, although Doctor Who generally avoids monster match ups (unlike say the 1960s Batman series, which, when ratings were failing, would wheel out a double bill of the Joker and the Penguin, for instance. Zonk!) it often puts supplementary monsters alongside the Daleks to indicate what they are not. They are not, for example, the Robomen, who are brainless slaves. They’re not the Slyther or Varga plants which are simple unthinking beasts. They’re not muscly grunt like the Ogrons or aestheic show ponies like the Movellans. And they’re not Davros, who can hold a (admittedly megalomaniacal) conversation.

So the Daleks are the main game. They outsmart and outgun everybody in order to get their Genesis Ark primed and ready to spew forth millions of themselves in the skies above London. But the Doctor has a trick up his sleeve. He’s worked out that because the Daleks and Cybermen are covered in voidstuff, he can open the breach and they’ll be sucked into it.

Davies can sometimes be accused of employing a quick, convenient solution to his stories; I call it the magic switch. For a classic example, consider New Earth; a cocktail of medicines spreads itself amongst the infected experimentees. Game over, nice and easy. And hey, who can blame him? He’s only got 45 mins an episode, he doesn’t have time to muck around. An ending, albeit one achieved by throwing a magic switch, is still an ending.

But Doomsday does it better. Here the fictional explanation about the voidstuff makes a kind of sense, and is signposted early enough in the episode to make it seem less of an arbitrary quick fix, rolled out as time ticks away. The Doctor’s plan takes time to set up as well; it’s no instant cure all and that also helps sell it to the audience. And it’s not perfect – opening the breach puts the Doctor and Rose at risk too – so it’s hardly convenient. In story terms, it’s no less a magic switch than any other pulled in the series’ long history, but it’s sold to us better.

And so an epic story comes to and end. Daleks and Cybermen thrown into hell, and the Doctor and Rose separated by the walls of parallel universes. And just at the end, we get a surprise; there’s suddenly a bride in control room. Cue the first of our “what? What? What?!” moments. The cliffhanger lives to fight another day.

LINKS to Pyramids of Mars: Torchwood has an Egyptian sarcophagus in it’s collection of stolen alien goods. Surely a hat tip?

NEXT TIME… A space helmet for a cow? It’s back to the Hartnell era for The Time Meddler.