Tag Archives: peter capaldi

Secrets, separation and The Husbands of River Song (2015)

riversong

There’s a disquieting undertone to this episode, despite it being a big, bold Chrismassy romcom. Yes, it’s the episode that wraps up the relationship between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, relishing the comic moments) and River Song (Alex Kingston, relishing every bit of it), and it does so in a festive melange of romance and continuity references. Yes, it’s a genuinely funny knockabout caper which celebrates the bond between two fascinating characters. But there’s a nagging concern I’ve been unable to shake. Here it is:

This is the story where River’s true self is revealed to the Doctor. And then he dumps her.

Much was made in this story’s pre-publicity of the comedy value of the Doctor seeing what River does when he’s not around. Due to an unlikely combination of contrivances (River’s convinced the Doctor has a limit of 12 faces, he’s been introduced as ‘the surgeon’), she doesn’t twig who he is, and so she lets the veil drop a little.

We meet a far naughtier character that we’ve seen her be before. We see that she has multiple husbands and multiple wives. That she’s prepare to marry a villain in order to steal from him and kill him. That she borrows the TARDIS when the Doctor’s not looking and stores hooch in a handy roundel. That she’s welcomed onto a spaceship full of mass murderers.

The Doctor looks suitably bemused at all these revelations. But it’s a short exchange with River over dinner that really seems to rock him. She talks about how she got King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) to fall in love with her.

RIVER: It’s the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

And she holds up her TARDIS diary to emphasize the point. Later…

DOCTOR: …you look sad.

RIVER: It’s nearly full.

DOCTOR: So?

RIVER: The man who gave me this was the sort of man who’d know exactly how long a diary you were going to need.

DOCTOR: He sounds awful.

RIVER: I suppose he is. I’ve never really thought about it.

DOCTOR: Not somebody special then?

RIVER: No. But terribly useful every now and then.

Of course, she’s shielding her true feelings, but still, it’s clear that these words sting the Doctor. Later on, in a more honest and revealing moment, River explains that while she loves the Doctor, he doesn’t love her in return.

RIVER: When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!

Penny in the air. She turns to look at the Doctor. Penny drops.

DOCTOR: Hello, sweetie.

It’s a moment of reaffirmation. But the damage appears to be done. This relationship is toast. And River won’t get a say in how it ends.

Consider what happens next. The spaceship, under assault from a meteor storm, dive bombs into a planet. River recognizes the planet immediately as Darillium. We fans know what happens on Darillium. It’s the site of her final meeting with the Doctor before she dies. To escape the crash, the Doctor and River take shelter in the TARDIS. It survives the crash and is planted on Darillium. River is unconscious. The Doctor is awake. And now he has choices.

He could take off again. He and River could go off adventuring anew. No need to stop the fun. Another great escape.

But he doesn’t do that. He makes a conscious decision to engineer the building of a restaurant of Darillium so that he can take River for dinner there, and spend their last night together. He knows this will precipitate the end of their relationship. He does it anyway. It his opinion, it’s time.

Two things bug me about this:

He does it without consulting River. There are two people in this relationship but the Doctor is the one who decides to end it. Why doesn’t he discuss it with her? Presumably because he knows she won’t want to go, but everything has its time and every Christmas is last Christmas or something. Imagine if your partner took an action he/she knew was going to end your relationship, but didn’t discuss it with you. Or did it while you were unconscious! It’s pretty appalling.

He does this after she revealed her true self to him. There have been no end of opportunities for the Doctor to take River to Darillium. He chose this time. What’s different about this time? It’s all as exciting and wisecracking as usual, except this time, River has displayed some habits he doesn’t like. There is air of punishment about this, which is, well, icky. If you don’t like her stealing your TARDIS and murdering despots for jewels, then say something. Don’t just unilaterally decide to end the relationship.

When River works out what’s going on, she naturally protests. She begs for a loophole, for another chance. But the Doctor’s mind is made up. The silver lining? One night on Darillium lasts twenty-four years.

Well that sounds alright in theory, but have these two met each other? Neither of them can stand still for a minute and they’re proposing to spend nearly a quarter of a century in a restaurant? Personally I don’t think it will last twenty-four hours, let alone years.

Perhaps that’s River’s revenge. Perhaps while he’s off to the loo, she steals his TARDIS and pilots it twenty-three-and-three-quarters years into the future. That’ll serve the manipulative old git right!

LINK TO The Three Doctors: “remember that time when there was two of you?” says River. She wasn’t talking about The Three Doctors, but still.

NEXT TIME… As my random who generator’s will, so mote it be! It’s time to summon up The Dæmons.

 

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.

Reliving history, telling the future and The Fires of Pompeii (2008)

firespompeii

Firstly, a spoiler. NEXT TIME… It’s Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead.

In that story, River says, “You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them, and it’s like they’re not quite finished. They’re not done yet.” Watching The Fires of Pompeii gives us that experience twice, as it features both Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi, pre- their days as TARDIS regulars.

Gillan is costumed and made-up to such an extent that you do have to squint a little to see Amy Pond lurking in a story she shouldn’t be in. But she’s there, although her posh accent and her earnest way of delivering her Soothsayer’s lines give us no hint of the companion she’ll become.

Capaldi’s presence, like Colin Baker’s in Arc of Infinity, is more distracting. There’s the Doctor, you keep thinking whenever he appears, although Capaldi’s a skilled enough actor to know that as a supporting character he’s there to complement, not steal focus from the main players. He gives a perfectly pitched turn as Caecillius, which is now basically ruined forever because he’s since become the Doctor. Admire your skillful performance, sir? I can’t! You’re the Doctor!

So The Fire of Pompeii’s job – to give us a complete fictional world to immerse ourselves in – keeps getting more and more difficult. These quirks of casting tear us away from the story. But it’s ironic that a story about prophesising the future, is doing so itself by showing us the show’s future stars. It should stop now though, or it’ll become completely unwatchable. Still… Phil Davies as the Master? Francesco Pandolfo as a companion? Tracey Childs as the Doctor?

It’s an odd mix, this story. On one hand, it’s relentlessly jokey, in a cheeky, post modernist way. Caecillius and his family have the 21st century family problems of a sitcom cast, all hungover layabout boys, and girls whose skirts outrage their father and so on.The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) wisecrack their way around the streets of Pompeii. Latin’s misheard as Welsh, and so hilariously on.

Showrunner Russell T Davies has a great love of the Asterix comic strip books by Goscinny and Uderzo, which take a jolly, action packed view of Roman occupied Gaul and you can see the influence clearly in Pompeii. Sly shoutouts to popular culture and modern mores are peppered through both. And when a character called Lucius Petrus Dextrus has a stone right arm, we’re not miles away from the likes of Vitalstatistix, Cacophonix and Getafix.

On the other hand, this is a story in which the Doctor and Donna decide to kill 20,000 people.

They do it in order to save the world, but it’s still a grim moment in a script which has been, up until then, busy cracking the funnies. Once they press the button, they run back through the town where terrified people are trying desperately to flee, but with little hope. The jokes have stopped, and instead we have the unsettling feeling of levity and tragedy sitting side by side.

This is reminiscent of the Doctor’s last visit to ancient Rome, back in ’64 (both AD and 1964) in The Romans. Back then, William Hartnell’s Doctor was shown to inadvertently inspire the Great Fire of Rome. “That fire had nothing to do with me. Well, a little bit,” says Tennant’s Doctor here and he’s right. Back then he was also partly responsible for another fiery disaster that destroyed an entire city and killed scores of people. And the whole affair was also a disconcerting mix of light and dark.

This is clearly what happens when the Doctor visits the ancient Roman empire. He should really steer clear of the whole place. If the TARDIS lands in ancient Gaul, Asterix should gulp down some of that magic potion of his and run a mile.

To get to the TARDIS and escape the devastation they’ve caused, the Doctor and Donna have to dash past Caecillius’s family, who are cowering in terror. It’s too much for Donna, who insists that the Doctor save them, if only them, from the volcano’s wrath. As ever, Donna’s humanising effect on the Doctor works, and the Doctor complies, although it means bending the laws of time.

It’s a nice touch, and saves the story from having an utterly depressing ending. It’s an twist on the ending of The Massacre where Hartnell’s Doctor and companion Steven escaped the slaughter of the Hugenots in Paris, but the Doctor didn’t attempt to save their newfound friend Anne Chaplet. There was a happy ending on that occasion too – we discover that Anne survived and sired a family line that eventually produced Dodo – but in that case it was pure chance. Here the Doctor deliberately intervenes, despite his initial instincts, and the story’s the better for it.

It’s also the start of a longer narrative for the Tenth Doctor, about him gradually loosening his commitment to the sanctity of history. It leads eventually to The Waters of Mars where he abandons it completely, and to the eleventh Doctor’s era, where his new mantra becomes ‘time can be rewritten’. This line of development continues into the twelfth Doctor’s tenure, and oddly enough, is also relevant to the dual casting of Peter Capaldi.

2015’s The Girl Who Died tackles the problem of Capaldi’s appearance in The Fires of Pompeii. In that adventure, the Doctor declares that he subconsciously chose Caecillius’ face for himself as a reminder. It’s a reminder that he saves people’s lives no matter what the rules say. With an angry cry, he turns on his heel and heads off to bring Ashildr back from the dead.

It’s all coincidental I assume, but there’s something neat about the fact that Capaldi’s performance in Pompeii is not just a continuity bump to smooth over, but a signal of an eventual shift in the Doctor’s character. He becomes a rule breaker, a master of time, not its servant and Capaldi’s face is the permanent expression of it. It’s one of those fortuitous instances when Doctor Who inadvertently forecasts its future and creates something new in the process.

Which leads us nicely to our next post on Silence in the Library. But as the saying goes, ‘spoilers’.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: lots of problems with tricky words like “sestertii”, “Appian Way”, “Allons y”, but also “underground” and unusually, “TARDIS”.

LINK TO Mawdryn Undead: truculent teenagers in both.

Capaldi, Moffat and Heaven Sent (2015)

heavensent

Tom Baker, at the height of his Doctordom, used to advocate for a Doctor Who which he starred in solo, with no need for a companion. He saw, I think it’s fair to say, the potential for him to hold an audience’s attention solo. Probably through the force of his own personality, but it’s not an unreasonable proposition – as The Deadly Assassin proved – that the Doctor as a dominant central character can hold a story’s narrative together on his own.

And since then, we’ve seen Doctors Tennant and Smith in companion-lite stories, and the model has worked just fine. But always these have remained ensemble pieces, with our solitary Doctor interacting with a guest cast . It’s not until Heaven Sent we get a story which is not just companion-lite, but everything-but-the-Doctor-lite. It’s the sort of episode Tom Baker must have dreamt of, back in day.

Heaven Sent is many things, not least of which an extraordinary vote of confidence in Peter Capaldi. Never before has one actor been entrusted with keeping a Doctor Who audience captivated all by himself. But it’s also a case of showrunner Steven Moffat continuing to experiment with the show’s form. He’s also, I suspect, keeping himself interested, even challenging himself with episodes like this one and Listen which in essence ask the same question that The Deadly Assassin did… Which is, can we pull this radical idea off?

So Heaven Sent is about those two men, as much as it’s about the Doctor deducing his way out of his own bespoke torture chamber. Let’s start with…

Capaldi

Of all the actors to play the Doctor, Capaldi comes to it with the most distinguished resume. Only Eccleston I think could challenge him for pre-Who actorly kudos. Capaldi’s experience is written all over that well lined face of his and he brings all of that to bear on his performance of the Doctor.

He can be the subtlest of Doctors; I remember watching Deep Breath  for the first time and being impressed with what he could do with the slightest gesture or the smallest flick of an eye. If his performance has been painted with ever broader brushstrokes since then, we might put this down to the need to develop a bigger performance to match Doctor Who’s pace; eyes become wider, laughs more extravagant, snarls more ferocious.

Capaldi is also an actor who moves with precision. In Heaven Sent, look at the considered way he picks up a spade or lets sand run though his fingers. Compare this to the brio of David Tennant, sailing into a scene, coat billowing. Or the teeter totter movement Matt Smith made his signature move. Capaldi’s careful choice of gesture and gait is an important character note; his is a Doctor who considers, who internalises and who wastes no energy on wild flailing about.

His voice is also distinctive, and crucial to the foreboding atmosphere of Heaven Sent, much of which is told in voice over. The decision to keep his Scots accent (don’t send him to that Chameleon spaceship!) is an interesting one, and one which, along with his initially close cropped hair, tied him closely to his other famous TV role, Malcolm Tucker. Luckily though, it’s a terrific voice, loaded with gravitas and it adds to the doom laden feeling of this episode.

These days, the ghost of Malcolm Tucker has faded almost entirely. Capaldi’s new, more Doctorly, costume has helped that. At the beginning of his second season, he was wearing check trousers like Troughton, and how he has a burgundy frock coat ala Tom Baker. All this, plus his hair has now grown into a Pertwee-esque bouffant. He now not only looks like a classic Doctor, he’s deliberately imitating them, right down to his (thankfully unseen) question mark underwear.

All this gushing is just to point out that Capaldi’s Doctor has developed into someone really interesting. Still spikily bad tempered, but with a growing sense of wry humour. A Doctor who looks and sounds the part. Played by an actor with care and precision. It’s why there was no doubt he could hold our attention solo for 45 minutes, because he’s utterly compelling.

Moffat

To make a Doctor solo episode work, Moffat pulls a range of narrative tricks. The problem he faces is that the Doctor has to have some dialogue to explain what’s going on, but he has no one to speak to. As noted, there’s the voice over, turning the Doctor into a commentator on his own story and giving the impression that the viewer’s allowed access to his innermost thoughts.

Moffat also gives the Doctor two people to talk to while he’s alone. The first is his unseen imprisoner, at whom he rails and shouts threats. But soon his attention switches to the monstrous Veil (Jamie Reid Quarrel), a creature plucked from his own childhood fears. Either way, the Doctor now has someone to speculate about the plot in front of. This exposition doesn’t lack an audience; in effect the viewer takes the place of the absent companion.

Then there’s the ‘storm room’, a mental stronghold which sounds suspiciously like Sherlock’s mind palace, and which enables the Doctor to talk to an hallucination of Clara. The storm room is where he retreats to at moments of mortal peril, which is very handy. It gets Moffat out of the need for a companion to ask, ‘how did you get out of that one?’ So between these three tricks – talking to himself (through voiceover), talking to the monster and talking in a dream sequence, Moffat deftly manouevers around the lack of supporting characters.

Heaven Sent is more than just Moffat pulling off some impressive narrative tricks, though. It’s also about finding new things to do with this show, in his sixth year of running it. He wants to keep the show fresh, of course, but I think it’s also about his own need to remain challenged and engaged by the show. There’s a sense, in the later years of his reign, of Moffat needing to stretch the show’s format further and further in order to keep himself amused. Luckily, I think the show’s the stronger for it.

There’s still some familiar Moffat tropes: hard drives that save people, an entire ‘bespoke’ situation designed around the Doctor, a twist in the final reel (and what a twist. When that remarkable closing sequence showing multiple subsequent repetitions of the Doctor’s quest from beginning to end, and the penny dropped as to what the long term effect was, I must confess to giving the Moff a quiet round of applause for the sheer cleverness of it).

Still, this feels startlingly new, while still managing to recall that Deadly Assassin by placing a solo Doctor in a trippy, dream world trap of Time Lord making. Plus there’s the added layer of meaning now that we know that Moffat was attempting to leave Doctor Who at the end of this season, that the Doctor himself stands as an avatar for the writer, trapped in a puzzle box of a TV series desperately trying to escape.

That’s what Heaven Sent says to me. One man liberated from the series’ standard format, seizing the opportunity to show how extraordinary he and his Doctor can be. And another man fighting against that format, to keep himself motivated and his writing vital, all the time with one eye on the exit, even if he has to bash his way through a wall of stone to get to it, one punch at a time.

LINK TO The Faceless Ones: duplication processes.

NEXT TIME: Which one was your favourite? The Giant Robot? Or was it Planet of the Dead?

An unearthly child, two bad wolves and In the Forest of the Night (2014)

Forest

Here’s my basic thesis on this odd little episode: it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that shouldn’t stop us enjoying it.

Want to find logical flaws in In the Forest of the Night? We don’t have to look very hard. How does a forest spring up in a 24 hour city like London with no one noticing? If it happened overnight, did it happen in broad daylight on the other side of the world? And why are there so few people in London during the events of this episode? Isn’t the whole idea of trees instantly setting up an oxygen buffer to quell a solar flare just too unfeasible? How about how they all instantly vanish after the flare hits? How can trees repel flames? And what about all the damage caused to roads and buildings and so on caused by trees growing up around them? How was that all immediately fixed?

I have to admit that when I first saw this episode this ever growing pile of problems bugged me a lot. It was that there were so many of them, and they were so blatant. It was when I thought, this must be deliberate. Showrunner Steven Moffat and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce are smart guys. They must know how preposterous all this is, so what’s their point?

Their point, I think, is that this is not an episode to be taken too literally. I think its closest cousin in Doctor Who would be The Mind Robber, where the events within are so fantastical that it makes more sense to concentrate on themes and subtext of the story, than worry too much about its internal logic. Once I took this approach, I found there was much to enjoy in this densely layered, lyrically written and at times, very funny story.

*****

This story centres on a lost little girl, Maebh Arden (Abigail Eames). ‘Maebh’ means ‘she who intoxicates’ and Arden is Shakespeare’s mystical forest in As You Like it. She wears a red hooded jacket, and she’s menaced by not just one but two big bad wolves, so she’s a strong signal of fairy tales and their influence on this story.  Later, Clara (Jenna Coleman) will compare hers and the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) situation to the lost children, Hansel and Gretel. The forest grows overnight with the speed of Jack’s famous beanstalk. Fairy tales are potent stuff and the journey into a dark forest, to suffer through bizarre ordeals but to also learn something about life, is a familiar trope of the fantasy genre. Stephen Sondheim even wrote a musical about it.

In this particular forest, there are strange, unpredictable creatures. They’re called children. Not just the traumatised Maebh, but the rest of the Coal Hill gifted and talented mob. Early in the episode, hard nut Bradley (Ashley Foster) is taunted by smart alec Samson (Jayden Harris-Wallace) by the flickering of torchlight in his eyes. Later, their teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) uses the same technique to scare off a tiger (is that a genuine Bear Grylls style jungle survival technique? Let’s not try it out). When wayward teenager Annabel (Eloise Barnes) arrives home, she’s peering out of the hydrangea bush as the wolves did earlier in the ep. Kids, wolves and tigers, they’re all the same thing, apparently. Wild, untameable beasts.

These earthly children are at the centre of a giant shout out to Doctor Who’s very first episode. In An Unearthly Child each of our Coal Hill schoolteachers have a flashback to trying to teach Susan something. Here, both Danny (Samuel Anderson) and Clara have a similar moment. Capaldi’s grumpy Doctor is close enough to Hartnell already, but Danny makes the connection clearer when he accuses him (albeit jokingly) of abducting Maebh, as he did Ian and Barbara all those years ago in a junkyard.

Hartnell used to compare the Doctor to a wizard, and that’s clearly what Capaldi is here. Even though Clara says his sonic screwdriver is not a magic wand, he has a mysterious magic cabinet. He can make shiny floating lights appear in the sky. And he inhabits this world full of magic – not just Clarke’s law kind of magic, advanced technology beyond our ken. But genuine-there’s-no-explanation-for-this magic. This is a world where trees don’t burn, where missing daughters reappear in a sparkle of fairy dust, where children can predict incoming solar flares, steal their teacher’s thoughts and command the world to be nice to trees. It is a world where science disappears in a puff of smoke. So of course it has a resident magician, a label often applied to our black clad Doctor.

There’s also a nagging sense the whole thing might be just a dream. Young Ruby (Harley Bird – the voice of Peppa Pig!) wonders how long they’ve slept for. Like Rip Van Winkle, or perhaps the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even Sleeping Beauty… perhaps they are all the victims of these soporific woods. With reality and fantasy being harder to discern, our little wild animals become inured to the amazing sights around them. They don’t even react when they enter the cavernous TARDIS console room. “There wasn’t a forest. Then there was a forest. Nothing surprises us any more,” explains Ruby.

And then there’s the tiger, and the title, which throws William Blake into the mix. By now, we’re lost in a forest of allusions. What next? You could throw in a joke about Les Miserables and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Nothing surprises us any more.

*****

What do all these crazy references indicate? What on earth is Cottrell-Boyce trying to say? I think the common link is the mythic power of stories.

It doesn’t matter if your preferred bedtime story is Red Riding Hood, or The Tyger or An Unearthly Child. The point is the powerful impact they have on the imagination. They disrupt the real world, like a forest bursting through the pavement. And anyone who’s ever tried to put a tantrumming toddler to bed (as wild as a tiger), will know how the right story will transport them to a different world, and send them gently into a world of dreams. They’ll dream of saving the world and talking to trees.

To me, that’s what In the Forest of the Night is about – the power of stories, including Doctor Who, to fire the imagination. If we try to make it all make sense, we’re missing the point. Do you try to make The Tyger makes sense? Or the story of Hansel and Gretel? You might as well try to make sense of a man who changes his face and travels through time in a phone box.

LINK TO The Evil of the Daleks: I’m pointing out a thematic link here, but both are referencing the very earliest Doctor Who stories. As is our next random selection…

NEXT TIME: We get our grubby little protuberances on Remembrance of the Daleks.

Terror, Zygons and The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion (2015)

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As series 9 loomed, this story as described by its pre-publicity, didn’t seem to be one which would offer too many shocks. After all, it’s a UNIT story, usually a signal to expect a standard aliens vs army runaround. What’s more, it’s got a return appearance from old favourites the Zygons, who may have been sinister, bloated foetuses on 70s debut Terror of the Zygons but who had become slightly comical sidebar villains in The Day of the Doctor. By rights we should know what to expect from this story, and it should be action packed, light hearted fun.

But like a vicious alien monster disguised as a beautiful woman, the outward appearances hid something far more frightening. The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion takes the trappings of 70s Who by numbers and anniversary hijinks and makes them the conduits for a Doctor Who take on terrorism and its underlying causes. It’s an uncompromising face slap of a story.

Right from the beginning it’s creating unusually visceral imagery, such as when we see Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) taken hostage, flanked by her captors and their monochrome flags, forced to read a propaganda ridden statement. As if it’s not shocking enough for Who to mimic terrorism onscreen, the tormentee is a scarf-wearing superfan. She’s us, kidnapped by ISIS.

Coming a close second for disturbing imagery is Clara-impersonating Zygon Bonnie (Jenna Coleman) shooting down a plane. At time of broadcast, it was barely a year since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down over Ukraine by a surface to air missile, killing all on board. To end an episode with a similar incident feels shockingly contemporary, but it’s also very close to tastelessness.

And for a third? How about the moment when Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) on assignment in the New Mexican town of Truth or Consequences is shown a dumpster bin full of buzzing hairballs, the remains of humans fried by Zygon weaponry. Her revolted expression tells us the story, but then we pan over to see a line of other bins, and without seeing any violence, we get an acrid taste of the scale of the atrocities committed in this town. (And it makes us think back to when Kate rode into that town and a couple of random tumbleweeds tumbled through shot. These could so easily be mistaken for cliched indulgences from the art department, but now we wonder if they were in fact human remains).

Grim stuff, but this is meant to shock. It’s meant to provoke. And it does so not just through these big moments, but through a smart script that draws its analogies sharply without them seeming crass. Think how badly talk of radicalising Zygons and splinter groups could have gone. Think of the sledgehammer political commentary of Aliens of London/World War Three, for instance. Successfully avoided by writers Peter Harness and Steven Moffat, whose treatment of the subject matter never makes us think equating Zygons with terrorists is dumb; rather that it seems an obvious match. Terror of the Zygons, indeed.

In that original story, the Zygons were just generically evil baddies, blessed with some outstanding design work and some better than average direction. On that occasion, the Doctor saw no shades of grey in these orange suckers; he simply blew them up as soon as was practicable. There was no attempt to uncover a sympathetic edge to this race, as might have been sought during the Pertwee era. The Day of the Doctor added little more to them. But here, we learn more, that there are peaceful and warlike Zygons, but that most want to live out their lives safely undercover. It’s a big change and adds far more depth to this once most generically drawn of species.

This makes the threat that the splinter group Zygons represent far more potent, because we can compare them to the worst of humanity. We know how appalling human terrorists are so we have a sense of how awful Zygon terrorists must be. It’s far more dramatic this way, knowing that you’re dealing with the very worst a race can drag up. And these bad guys are far scarier when they look just like us, not like calamari. The sequence of the UNIT soldier being unable to shoot a Zygon in the shape of his mother is tangibly frightening. And when Bonnie forces a Zygon to unmask in the middle of a shopping mall, she’s enacting the terrorist’s modus operandi of instilling fear of going about your daily business. As the Doctor says, panic and paranoia are their trade.

These episodes give us some of the edgiest material the program has ever served up, so it’s almost a shame when the plot has to reassert itself and move us towards some sort of climax. And that climax, is effectively a repeat of the sequence in The Day of the Doctor where Kate and her Zygon counterpart were forced into negotiation. It’s a small scale end for such an action-packed story, just the two chief protagonists, fingers poised over buttons and the Doctor on hand to referee.

So if you’re going to end a blockbuster with an extended monologue, best get it delivered by Peter Capaldi, who eats it alive with all the hunger of an aging anti-war activist who’s been railing at warmongering plutocrats since he played Amazing Grace on his guitar at Woodstock with Hendrix. It’s a moment which solidifies this Doctor; it’s difficult to imagine Matt Smith delivering this speech to the same effect.

His appeal to the terrified aggressors, both human and Zygon, is to stop and think. That’s the conclusion this episode seems to draw is that terrorism is ultimately an act of stupidity and if its perpetrators just thought logically about their actions, they’d never follow through with them. Who knows whether this is true, but it’s a beautiful hopeful thought. And as the Doctor once said, one solid hope’s worth a cartload of certainties.

In the pre-publicity for this story, co-writer Peter Harness talked about the influence of 50s sci-fi classic Invasion of the Bodysnatchers on this story. And true enough, in the eery “can’t tell who’s who” scenes there is a passing resemblance. But actually, The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion is cleverer than that film, a one-note screed against communism. This is a nuanced commentary on current affairs and a taut thriller into the bargain. What really makes it exhilarating though, is the realisation that every now and then Doctor Who, that venerable old show, still has the power to shake itself and its viewers out of the comfort zone.

LINK TO: The Chase. Duplicates. But more convincing.

NEXT TIME… It’s a game, within a game. A chance to remeet old friends and The Five Doctors.

Legend, fiction and Robot of Sherwood (2013)

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Clara Oswald was born, we’re led to believe, on 23 November 1986 (making her birth story The Ultimate Foe, fact fans). And a story she’s always loved, ever since she was little is Robin Hood (I think you mean since she was young, she’s always been little, I can hear Beverly Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory saying).

But which version of the story, did she love I wonder? We know she’s a bookworm, so she may well have had the Big Book of Robin Hood, or whatever it was. But I think, like most children of the 80s, she would have been watching those merry men on TV or at the cinema.

She’s just that little bit too young to have seen ITV’s hit series Robin of Sherwood, though perhaps she rented it from the video store when she was older. We didn’t get it out in Australia (as far as I know), but from all accounts, it was the goods: thrilling, enchanting and romantic. All this plus Jondar too. It ran for three seasons and has garnered its own devoted following, and is obviously fondly enough remembered to have an episode of Doctor Who named after it. All in all, it’s a pity Clara wouldn’t have seen it.

But perhaps as a precocious young five year old, she was able to enjoy the bumper Robin Hood year which was 1991. Two major Hoody feature films! One – Robin Hood – was the brooding, serious type with Patrick Bergin. That was the one no-one saw.

The one everyone saw was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It was inescapable, not least of all because it had a saccharine ballad by Bryan Adams on its soundtrack which was played on ultra high rotation on commercial radio. It conquered the box office and, it has been claimed, was influenced by Robin of Sherwood (and Who stuntman Terry Walsh worked on both apparently). But it’s surely the Costner swashbuckler that Clara’s parents took her to the cinema to see. Then, I imagine, she watched it multiple times on VHS until the tape snapped and she wailed until her parents bought her a new copy. And she sang (Everything I do) I do it for you at her school concert. I can see it now.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is exactly the sought of rollicking popcorn flick that Robot of Sherwood is striving to be. Lots of action, lots of romance and with plenty of arch self awareness. I mean when you have a band of merry men consisting of Costner, Christian Slater and Morgan Freemen, it’s clearly not shooting for verisimilitude. Enter Alan Rickman’s sneering, petulant Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns it up to 11. “Cancel Christmas!”, he demands at one point, a gag which has lasted so long it made it into A Christmas Carol. All this plus King Yrcanos and Gilbert M too. It is, to invoke that much used Who-ish term, a romp. Just like Robot of Sherwood.

So the lineage goes Robin of Sherwood, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robot of Sherwood. (I think we can also assume that Clara got to see Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights as well, but the less said about that unfunny mess, the better.)

By the time she’s 19, I imagine Clara’s spending her Saturday nights out socialising, so perhaps she set the tape for Robin Hood, the Tiger Aspect TV series which ran on BBC. It also fits the established template; action, romance and a dash of post-modern humour. Jonas Armstrong was a particularly hipster kind of Robin, it was generally good, clean, occasionally anachronistic fun. All this plus Son of Mine too.

Robin Hood kicked off in 2006, and was, at least in part, a reaction to the successful revamp of Doctor Who. Clearly there was a big enough market for Saturday evening adventures for family viewing to accommodate both. It’s also a reason why new Who has taken so long to get around to a Robin Hood episode (though to be fair, not as long as the original series, which never got there at all). It would have been odd to have two versions of the story on air at once. But it would have been the perfect excuse for a cross over episode. I wonder if it was ever mooted? A Christmas special perhaps?

Why is all this significant? (Well, it’s not really, these are random thoughts after all) But there’s a famous moment in Robot of Sherwood which reminds us that Robin is as much a filmic/televisual hero as a mythic one. It’s that moment where a computer screen is flashing up a variety of representations of Robin from literature and folk law. Among it is a photo from the BBC’s original TV adaptation of the story, Robin Hood, from 1953.

It’s telling that the Robin chosen for that shot is not Jason Connery or Jonas Armstrong or even Kevin Costner. Of course, it’s second Doctor Patrick Troughton, and that cleverly feeds into a key theme of the story, that the Doctor and Robin are similar creatures. That photo of Troughton positions Robin as an echo of the Doctor himself. Later on, there’s some pleasing post-modern chicanery when the Doctor, a fictional character, disputes Robin’s very existence. “I’m as real as you are,” Robin tells the Doctor at the story’s end, which is to acknowledge that both of them are unreal. Both are works of fiction and the stuff of legend.

And from whom did the Doctor (bony rascal Peter Capaldi) learn to sword fight? Richard the Lionheart! (a real person, much mythologised) Cyrano de Bergerac! (a real person, fictionalised for the stage) Errol Flynn! (An actor, famous for playing Robin Hood). So a confusion of historical figures immortalised by legend, historical figures enmeshed in fiction and an actor who pretends to be other people. It’s all very fitting for a sword fight between two fictional characters arguing about who’s real.

But there might have been a more amusing version. Who taught you to fence, Doctor? Terry Walsh! Patrick Troughton! That fox from the Disney film!

LINK to Warriors of the Deep. Soggy Doctors.

NEXT TIME… Enlightenment brings whatever one desires. So that’s good news.