Tag Archives: regeneration

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

stolenearth

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Moments, memories and The End of Time (2010)

Moment 1: When The End of Time Part Two was shown, there was a plaintive update from one of my Facebook friends. She just said:

“I don’t want you to go either.”

***

Back in the here and now, I’m thinking of what to say about The End of Time. It’s too obvious, I think, to talk about how this is all about Tennant and showrunner Russell T Davies leaving the show. It might be interesting to talk about how this is a story about veterans being dragged back into war. Or it might be interesting to talk about some of Davies’ favourite tropes: prophesies, people turned into super beings, things which are ‘lost‘ and things which ‘return’.

But I keep coming back to Tennant and what it means to have him leave the series. On one hand, The End of Time is a vehicle for that departure, certainly one that celebrates and honours him too. So far, so every regeneration story.

Except that Tennant is not just any Doctor. He’s the one who spearheaded the show’s growth in popularity in the noughties. He’s the one who attracted a sizeable female audience to the program, including Mrs Spandrell. He’s the only Doctor to rival the mighty Tom Baker’s claim to being everyone’s favourite Doctor. So Tennant leaving is huge and risky.

I don’t want you to go either, said my Facebook friend. Not just because she’ll miss his handsome face. But also because of an unspoken fear, that things will never be the same again.

***

Moment 2: At the Sydney Opera House for the Symphonic Spectacular (oh.. so much fun) in 2012. There’s a hero piece which features each Doctor’s regeneration, on a giant screen while an orchestra plays. Each Doctor gets their applause, with a spike for Tom Baker.

Eventually, David Tennant, and the place goes nuts. Matt Smith’s the incumbent Doctor at this stage. But it’s clear that Ten rules that room.

****

What is it that makes a room full of Who fans, young and old, new and classic, dragging along their mums, their kids and their long suffering spouses, go nuts for a big screen full of David Tennant regenerating? Why does he get the biggest, longest cheer? What endears him to them so?

Tennant was not widely known before Doctor Who. When he took it on, the role seemed to fit him like a glove. Perhaps because as a childhood fan he’d spent so much time preparing for the part. For male fans, he seems like one of us, the one who actually got to fulfil his boyish fantasies about playing the Doctor.

Oddly enough, this inspires no jealousy. Instead, we cheer him on. How could you not? He’s too bloody good, like that kid you played football with, who went on to play for (insert name of impressively grand football team here), while you gave up and went home to eat biscuits.

For female fans (who like boys, and for boys who like boys) he’s clearly a dish, and funny and charming to boot. But he’s the first Doctor to take an interest in girls. To want to court girls, and to acknowledge that girls like him. He’s the first Doctor it seems possible to date. Likes to dress up, likes a bit of a laugh. And he’s a bit damaged, but not so much that he’s cruel or nasty. Just a bit sad now and then. Plus brave and daring… What’s not to fall in love with?

That’s why an opera house full of people cry out for Ten. Because he’s got something for everyone.

****

Moment 3: Watching late series 3 on broadcast with Mrs Spandrell. I can’t remember which ep, but there’s a swagger in the Doctor’s step.

ME: Tennant’s changed since his first year, but I can’t quite work out how.

Mrs Spandrell thinks for a moment.

MRS: Before, he didn’t know he was sexy. Now he does. And he’s loving it.

****

When The Waters of Mars ended with the Doctor realising the folly of his attempt to cheat history, it was unclear to me what his final line of “No!” meant. Perhaps, I thought, it was uttered in defiance of the laws of time and he’d keep on with his meddling ways. Then I had a great idea for what Tennant’s finale might be about.

I thought that Tennant might be playing a Doctor gone bad, one who had continued to indulge his newfound power for changing events, but had now left Earth a twisted mess of timelines. He’d be left to rule over the chaos, a moody, unpredictable despot. In an attempt to defeat him and set time to rights, the Master is resurrected to bring down the Doctor, thereby reversing the familiar roles of good and bay guy.

Of course it wasn’t to be. But it would have a interesting end to the Tenth Doctor, who ended up too big for his dusty old sandshoes. Because the hubris he displayed in The Waters of Mars would have been thoroughly answered for. As would have that broader arrogance which had developed in the Doctor throughout his tenure. That swaggering brashness. The Tenth Doctor started out as a chic geek, but throughout the years he became sexy and he knew it. And there’s still a hint of that ego in The End of Time.

About which more after…

***

Moment 4: Dinner out with Mrs Spandrell and a old friend who’s an avid watcher, but not quite a fan, of Doctor Who. Somehow, the conversation turns to David Tennant and his departure from the show and specifically the 10min+ sequence where he visits all his former companions. Indulgent, says our friend. Gushy, says Mrs Spandrell. They are in agreement. Self serving, shmaltzy… and then the entrees arrive.

***

It’s an epic story this. The Master (John Simm) on full tilt, turning a whole planet into duplicates of himself in the ultimate ego trip (don’t ask how they’re going to reproduce). The return of Gallifrey and of Rassilon (Timothy Dalton), leaving no scenery unchewed. A dogfight with spaceships and missiles. And the Doctor falling from the sky, crashing into a building and um, somehow surviving.

The end for Ten, when it comes, is the cleverest thing in the story. Poor old Wilf (Bernard Cribbins) tapping meekly on that glass door, making good on the much threatened “he will knock four times” warning, as smart a misdirection as the show has ever got away with. Before he saves his life, the Doctor’s furious. He wants to live. “I could do so much more!” he yells, but he’s forfeited that right. His hubris is what’s brought him down. He has to die, and the regeneration starts.

But then there’s the long goodbye. Nearly 15 minutes of it, visiting companions past, seeing who got married to this and who nearly got run over by that and who he can pimp out to the other. Schmaltzy and indulgent, yes. If this were the Davison era, we’d make do with a sepia flashback sequence. If it was the Pertwee era, we’d just unsentimentally roll back and mix. But this is the Tennant era, so it’s bold, brash and just that little bit full of itself. So it kind of works.

Then the TARDIS catches fire, and new Doctor arrives, screaming like a newborn. Things are never the same again.

LINK TO Face the RavenThe faux death of a regular, again.

NEXT TIME: Best news all day. It’s Resurrection of the Daleks.

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.

Hedging bets, playing dumb and The Power of the Daleks (1966)

powerradioThese days we’d call it a soft launch. When Doctor Who first changed its lead actor, it made no big deal about it. The publicity for his debut story story barely mentioned new Doctor Patrick Troughton. The Radio Time story focuses on familiar elements: Ben (Michael Craze), Polly (Anneke Wills) and the Daleks. They didn’t change the title sequence. The message being sent is this is business as usual. No need to panic.

Last random, we saw how you change a Doctor with utter confidence. The Power of the Daleks shows no such bravado. It’s not making a fuss, just in case it all goes wrong and in a few weeks they have to ask Hartnell to come back. Not only do the production team soften the new Doctor’s appearance with a return of the show’s most famous monsters, they also bring back a team of old hands to work behind the scenes; writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner were the series’ first two story editors and director Christopher Barry worked on the very first Dalek episodes. Bets have never been so hedged.

In fictional terms too, how and why the Doctor has changed is kept very vague, in case it has to be retrofitted later on. The new Doctor refuses to give a straight answer to a question, babbling about change and renewal. Nothing there which couldn’t be revised later on, should this whole risky experiment go wrong.

Of course, it didn’t go wrong. It went spectacularly right. Not only has regeneration become a mainstay of the series and an essential element of its lasting appeal, Troughton was a brilliant success in the part. These days, we’re well acquainted with the second Doctor and his mischievous, child-like ways. It’s hard to imagine just what a shock it was watching The Power of the Daleks and seeing this, well, clown, leapfrogging boulders, tootling on a recorder and ripping door knobs of walls. “It’s little things like this,” says Ben “that make it difficult to believe that you’re the Doctor.”

It’s clever of Whitaker and Spooner to vocalise the audience’s doubts through Ben, just as it is to give their counterpoints to Polly, who far more readily accepts that this newcomer is the same man, just changed. She seems entirely convinced by the time the new Doctor indulges in some playful tongue twisters. “Lesterson listen. Exercises the tongue. Try it!” he urges, and she joins in. If anything indicates that the old Doctor has gone for good, it’s surely this scene, which Hartnell, famously shaky on his lines at the best of times, could never have pulled off.

****

The Daleks have also undergone a change. Having crash landed years ago on the colony planet Vulcan, they are being slowly awakened by starry eyed scientist Lesterson (Robert James). Rather than adopting their usual modus operandi of killing everyone within reach of a sucker arm, they instead adopt the pretense of working for the human colonists.

Various Vulcans see the Daleks as a way to further their own personal goals, whether it be scientific advancement like Lesterson or revolution and conquest like rebel leaders Janley (Pamela Ann Davy) and Bragen (Bernard Archer). Though you’d have thought the obsequious way the Daleks keep insisting to be everyone’s serrrr-VANTS! would have raised a few suspicious eyebrows. Not to mention that one almost gives the game away when it says, “a Dalek is bett…is not the same as a human!”

I’ve talked before about Whitaker’s idiosyncratic take on the Daleks, but its worth saying again that what he does is to personalise the Daleks by giving them a dose of human foibles: lying, deception and scheming. Lesterson even sees them as humanity’s replacement, although he says so once he’s gone doolally. “We understand the human mind,” one of them grates, and they do demonstrate an ability to psychologically manipulate those around them, by appealing to their greed. Still they haven’t entirely got us sussed. When Bragen orders one of them to kill the colony’s Governor (Peter Hensell), it ponders “why do human beings kill other human beings?” It’s played nicely too, as much as a ring modulator can convey emotion. The sense is not so much of a poignant Dalek reaction to death, but more a surprised reaction to how easy this conquest of the colony has been. #Trump.

The Doctor spends the whole story warning everyone about the Daleks, to no avail. If anyone watching still shared Ben’s doubts about this newcomer’s identity, it’s this suspicious attitude to the Daleks which shows he’s the same bloke as the white haired geezer he saw in the mirror. The audience knows he’s right too – as early as Episode 3 it’s clear that a Dalek can’t change its bumps. It’s another clever plotting trick of Whitaker’s, to put the audience on the side of this new Doctor. Even though he looks different and won’t answer a straight question, we know he’s right about the Daleks, so we’re on his side.

The power politics of the Colony and how the Daleks aid and abet it take up five episodes, and make for interesting enough listening. Episode 6, though, turns things up a notch. It starts with the Daleks finally articulating their true plan, to annihilate all humans, and then methodically setting about the task. The episode is almost entirely made up of the Daleks mercilessly mowing down humans, rebels and loyalists alike. It’s as grim as sixties Doctor Who gets. At one stage, a desperate Ben and Polly can do nothing but hide in a cupboard and hope to survive.

The Doctor’s plan comes worryingly late in the day. It’s to use the Daleks’ own power supply to blow their domed tops off. To make it happen, the Doctor has to resort to desperate measures. He has to use Bragen’s guards as a distraction, to allow him time to lash the set up together. It works, but the death count is Sawardesque.

Not everyone is grateful. The Doctor’s solution destroys the colony’s power supply, ensuring months of hardship. But there’s something even more worrying; an indication that the Doctor’s motivations are far from clear.

POLLY: Mind you, he wasn’t very convincing when he was trying to explain it to Valmar and Quinn and everybody.

BEN: No, he wasn’t, was he?

POLLY: Doctor, you did know what you were doing, didn’t you?

(The Doctor laughs softly)

What’s the suggestion here? That the Doctor deliberately botched his own attempts to explain the danger presented by the Daleks, so that he might play some long game of his own? A game which left scores of people dead?

One thing’s for sure, this is no longer business as usual. It might now be time to panic.

RANDOM QUESTION: when the Doctor tells Ben and Polly to go away and amuse themselves for a while, what do you think they get up to? I hope they had fun. Maybe in one of the empty rocket rooms.

LINK TO The Twin Dilemma: Doctory debuts.

NEXT TIME… It’s a flying beastie! We’re sticking with Troughton to face The Faceless Ones.

BUT BEFORE THEN: an random extra post, on The Power of the Daleks animation.

Polls, potential and The Twin Dilemma (1984)

twin-dilemma

We fans keep changing our collective mind about which is the best ever Doctor Who story. Is it Androzani? Is it Genesis of the Daleks? Is it The Day of the Doctor? We can’t decide. There are too many contenders.

But when it comes to the worst Doctor Who story, we’re unanimous. Time after time we say, The Twin Dilemma. There’s been nothing as bad as that one, we’ve said, in the last three Doctor Who Magazine all-time surveys. As long as we disregard Dimensions in Time, which I’m more than happy to do.

Ranking his debut story last among all Who makes Colin Baker sad, as we know from his 2015 interview with DWM. So sad that he questions the whole practice of mercilessly listing every story or every Doctor from best to worst. Unfortunately, this is what fans do. We list, we score, we compare. We ignore the good intentions, the extenuating circumstances and the mishaps beyond everyone’s control. We know which is the worst Doctor Who story ever, but we forget that no one on its production team deliberately set out to make the worst ever Doctor Who story. Quite the opposite, in fact, in the case of The Twin Dilemma where they sought to kickstart a new, vibrant era for the program.

This blog is not about casting judgement on Doctor Who stories. I try not to tell you which ones I think are good, better or best. Although I’m sure I fail, maybe on every single post, I’m not here to review or rate. Partly because there are loads of other websites that do that already. And partly because I want to hear fresh ideas about Doctor Who. I don’t want to read another article telling me that City of Death‘s brilliant and Time-Flight’s not. If anything, I want to read the opposite.

Facing The Twin Dilemma is a problem though, when something’s so famously, patently bad. It may or may not be the worst Doctor Who story in either my opinion or yours, but I think it can be overwhelmingly agreed that it’s not good Doctor Who. So I’m going to try to put that aside, in order to think about why we need a worst Doctor Who story in the first place.

Apparently showrunner Russell T Davies described this story as “the beginning of the end” for old Who. Having just watched Survival, I have been wondering if this is true – if a five year wind down of the series started with The Twin Dilemma. If you subscribe to that reading, I think that helps explain our need for a “worst story”. We’re looking for a scapegoat to blame for the old series’ cancellation.

I also think identifying the best and worst of something is an inherent part of fandom. I’ve written before about when I think fandom starts; for me, it’s when you seek out more information about the show than an average viewer would have access to. As part of this quest for knowledge, fans are building up a kind of expertise on the program. They develop opinions about what’s good and bad Doctor Who, as opposed to casual viewers who I suspect see any Who they watch as being roughly the same in quality. Fans are connoisseurs, and the ultimate expression of this is choosing not just good and bad, but best and worst.

Then there’s a tendency to ‘pile on’ a particular story. Once The Twin Dilemma started to get its reputation as the worst story ever, it became harder and harder to watch it without being aware of that tag. It became easy for everyone to agree. A similar thing is happening to Fear Her, which seems to be gaining the unwanted notoriety of the worst new series episode. The more we all buy into this idea, the less likely it is to shift.

So there’s scapegoating, piling on and fandom’s need to assess. The Twin Dilemma falls victim to all of these. Still, no smoke without fire – none of these things would gain any traction unless the story in question was dodgy to begin with. And there’s loads of material to work with here – ugly design work, flat direction, clunky dialogue.

On top of it all, it ends with a direct challenge to the audience, daring its audience to dislike it. “I am the Doctor,” declares Colin Baker, delivering the story’s final line from within that colourful maelstrom of a costume, “whether you like it or not!” An extraordinary way to end a story, which speaks of a vast but misplaced confidence. This story was already playing hard to like, and then it ends with an invitation to its audience to bugger off.

****

If The Twin Dilemma is about anything, it’s about the darker side of people, hidden under the surface. The sixth Doctor, in his post regenerative illness, releases a nasty, violent side which would have been unthinkable emerging from the gentle fifth Doctor. The story’s villain, the sluggy Mestor (Edwin Richfield) may be a laughably immobile, crosseyed panto costume, but the idea behind him, that he inhabits people’s minds, filling them with dark thoughts while lurking in shadows, is quietly sinister. Even the titular twins have the mental ability to destroy the universe, so we’re told. And it’s a theme that lasts throughout the sixth Doctor’s era, and culminates in the creation of the Valeyard, a supervillain created from the Doctor’s dark side.

So the seeds of something interesting are there, along with a bold ambition to try something new – to present regeneration not as a blessing, but a dangerous gamble, and to move the Doctor to being louder, ruder and, in many ways, harder than ever before. Here is a strikingly different Doctor, inherently theatrical in words and action and openly confrontational with friends and foes alike. It’s near impossible to imagine The Twin Dilemma as a fifth Doctor story, but not so impossible to imagine a universe where it worked as an innovative and invigorating launch for the sixth Doctor. The beginning of something brilliant, not the end.

Ultimately, being bad Doctor Who is only the first of this story’s crimes. The second is that it posited a brash new vision for the series that failed to convince the audience to go along with it. And while there have been lots of below par Doctor Who stories before and since, there have been none which managed that.

So that’s why I think fans insist on having a worst story, and why we’ve collectively decided it’s The Twin Dilemma. None of which is any comfort to Colin Baker or to anyone else involved in the story’s production.

What I hope is some comfort is that it wasn’t the beginning of the end. The series lives on loud and live, with a spiky, bad tempered Doctor at the helm. Plus the sixth Doctor hasn’t been shunned or quietly ignored; books, comics and audio dramas have crafted new Sixie eras which have garnered new fans. None of which would have been possible without The Twin Dilemma showing what didn’t work, but also what had the potential to work.

LINK TO Survival: wildlife (birds and cats) anthromorphised into alien species.

NEXT TIME: Life depends on change and renewal. Time to switch on The Power of the Daleks.

 

 

 

Old man, young man and Planet of the Spiders (1974)

planet-spiders

“The old man must die,” says ersatz Buhddist monk Cho-je in Pertwee farewell tale Planet of the Spiders, “and the new man will discover to his inexpressible joy that he has never existed.” He’s explaining meditation to go-getter journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), though soon enough she’ll actually be witnessing an old man being made new before her eyes. This is a story which draws parallels between the rejuvenation of the soul and regeneration of the body.

In fact, it’s the story that named the process where one Doctor transforms into another as ‘regeneration’ and in many ways, it’s the story that invents our modern understanding of the concept, as to what a Time Lord does on the point of death. The Doctor’s previous change was forced upon him as a punitive measure. And his first, back in The Tenth Planet, was a mysterious, explanation-light event. Although it’s hinted that the Doctor changed to avoid dying, it’s never overtly stated. It could easily be read as a refreshing of his body’s batteries, rather than a ‘get out of death free card’.

But if his first change was a renewal, and the second a punishment, this one is a genuine revivification. This is the first story where we see the Doctor, for all intents and purposes, die and then come back to life. When the seventh Doctor dies on the streets of San Francisco, his regeneration recalls this one. You have to die first to be reborn.

It’s also a form of natural justice.The War Games presented regeneration as a literal punishment for the Doctor and Spiders presents it as a metaphorical one, punishing him for the crime of theft (to whit, one large blue crystal) with a secondary charge of hubris. This idea gets repeated in future stories too; The End of Time suggests the Tenth Doctor’s (second) regeneration is payback for his manipulation of history in The Waters of Mars. And The Caves of Androzani suggests the Fifth Doctor’s death is the result of his recklessness, in delivering his companion Peri into danger.

But for a story which has given us so solid a basis for future regenerations, the actual event itself is treated fairly perfunctorily in Planet of the Spiders. It lasts only a few short seconds, a rudimentary roll-back-and-mix affair. After so much lead up to it, the change is done away with very quickly. That’s because as much as this story is thematically ‘about’ regeneration, it’s more practically about Jon Pertwee.

****

Regular readers of this blog (bless you all) will have noticed how Pertwee heavy it is. This is just one of those quirks of random selection; we’ve now looked at 19 out of 25 Pertwee stories. I’ll happily confess this is not my favourite era of the show, so while the nature of this blog is that I’ll get around to every story, had I been self selecting, I suspect a fair amount of Perts would be left until later.

Lots of Pertwee watching though, has given me a new appreciation of the bouffant one’s virtues. I’m talking Pertwee himself, rather than the Third Doctor, which I still find a significant deviation from my understanding of the character. He’s easier to like in his early stories, when he’s less patrician and condescending than once he’s settled in. But once he’s at home, with his UNIT lab to preside over, his pretty girl to boss around, his Brigadier to insult and the regular opportunities for mild violence, I find him too smug for words.

Jon Pertwee, though, I think is terrific. As a performer, you can see him so easily command attention. He’s present, in that actorly sense of the word, in every scene; whereas Tom Baker would every so often walk through a scene not engaging with what was going on around him, Pertwee’s listening and reacting all the time. Troughton used to almost sneak into a scene, and almost skirt around the camera’s gaze. Not Jon; the camera loves Pertwee and he loves it. A extrovert’s dream. I would have loved to have seen him live, and witnessed that bravado up close.

When former producer Derrick Sherwin cast Pertwee, he expected him to bring more of his entertainment background to the role of the Doctor. There was talk of him singing ballads and playing guitar. And in fact bits of this idea still sneak through; occasionally he pulls out a magic trick, puts on a funny voice or dresses up in drag. These, for me, are when the Third Doctor’s at his best, when he’s allowed to be a bit silly. A bit more showman, a little less action man, thanks.

*****

Writer/Producer/Director Barry Letts saw this as a story about the Doctor atoning for his greed. Script editor Terrance Dicks has since observed that this sounded more like Pertwee than the Doctor. And that’s the key to this story really. Spiders is designed to be a farewell for Pertwee, rather than for his Doctor.

After all, it’s a story which has a whole episode given over to Pertwee driving lots of vehicles, including his own car. The guest cast is cherry picked from previous Pertwee stories. The entire UNIT family return, with a message from Katy Manning, like an absentee guest on This is Your Life. There are numerous ‘moments of charm’. And of course, he looks Pertastic in sombre dark velvet and snowy cumulonimbus hair. This story’s an exercise in making him look good and feel comfortable, as he leaves a series he loves.

Everything else – the 1970s mysticism, the treacherous bad guy, the oppressed villagers, the invasion of the giant spiders from space – feels like window dressing. Impressive window dressing, sure, but not the main game. The main game is that the old man must die, so let’s make him as comfortable as we can in his last days. It’s the least we can do.

****

As ever, my random Who generator likes to spit out stories in awkward order. Last time it was The Ark (LINK: human descendants being oppressed by creepy crawly aliens) and next time it’s The Ark in Space. Our two arks separated! It would have been nice to compare them.

But funnily enough, Spiders to The Ark in Space is but a short hop, so there’s plenty to compare between those two as well. So NEXT TIME… I’ll be talking about all three. Let’s give that helmic regulator quite a twist.

And one further note… that’s our second full season – Season 11 -complete. View the full list of randomed stories here.

Inside, outside and Castrovalva (1982)

castrovalva

Act 1: Part One and half of Part Two

Perhaps the oddest way to start a new Doctor’s era is with a re-tread of Inside the Spaceship. In that curious little adventure from Doctor Who’s dawn, the Doctor and his three companions are trapped in the Ship and have to deduce that the rickety old thing is careering towards the creation of a sun. In the first act of Castrovalva, much the same thing happens, and in both, the theme is of strangers getting to know and respect each other through adversity.

The Doctor (Peter Davison) is suffering from the post-regenerative tremors and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has been kidnapped by the Master and replaced with a mathematical model of himself (this is presumably what CGI is going to lead to. Somewhere in his TARDIS the Master must have the future equivalent of Andy Serkis in his green body sock trying to mimic Adric’s body language. “Put your hand in your pocket now, walk stumblingly forward now”. Hopefully he wouldn’t have had to mimic the young lad during his famously priapic moment suffered whilst caught in the Master’s hadron web. Yup. Totes awks, boy wonder.)

With the blokes out of action, our heroes of this segment are bold and brash Tegan (Janet Fielding) and prim and proper Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). These two become mainstays of the Davison era, but in this story’s terms, they have only just met, sharing precious few scenes together in the previous story, Logopolis. So it’s an interesting decision to put these two women – strangers to themselves and to us – at the heart of the story, and put the fate of the TARDIS and the Doctor in their hands.

Luckily, Tegan and Nyssa make for a surprisingly interesting paring. They are certainly smart, proactive characters: it’s they who steal the ambulance in Part One to rescue the Doctor, they who work out that the TARDIS is in the middle of a death plunge and they who eventually have to jettison 25% of the Ship to escape oncoming disaster. It’s refreshing for Doctor Who to so prominently place two female characters and for them to take charge while the Doctor plays a diminished role.

I love this first segment of Castrovalva and a lot of it is down to Sutton and Fielding selling the dangerous situation they’re in. Which is no small feat considering all they’ve got to help them is some ‘it’s too hot’ acting, a few TARDIS lurches and some overlaid smoke. The new Doctor wandering around the TARDIS interior and impersonating his former selves is entertaining too, but it’s the idea that the two newcomers are in charge while everything goes to hell with roundels which maintains the tension. Paddy Kingsland’s music and Fiona Cumming’s direction help to sell it as well. If only they have turned down the lights a bit we would have got a real sense of our safe, familiar spaceship truly being on the edge of destruction.

Act 2: The rest of Part Two and a bit of Part Three

Castrovalva is continually about getting lost and finding a way out. In the first act, the Doctor and his companions lose themselves in the labyrinth of TARDIS interior, the second time in as many stories for Tegan. In the third, they’re befuddled by the kaleidoscopic dimensions of Castrovalva. The second act is set in the lush, airy outdoors of the planet, but even here our heroes struggle, with their destination seemingly moving about mid journey. You can’t trust any of this story’s settings to stay stable or make sense.

This second act is the most sedate of the three, a kind of mid-story breather. It consists of an increasingly strenuous stroll through the woods for Nyssa and Tegan, while they carry the Doctor in a faux coffin. Writer Christopher H Bidmead seeks to liven things up with stumbles into creeks and misdirection about a hunting party who turn out to be gentlemen, but there’s no hiding that this is the picturesque but otherwise dull shuttle between two more interesting stops. I mean, at least have our TARDIS crew pursued by a Castrovalvan wood beast or something.

Act 3: Most of Part Three and Part Four

Once we actually get to Castrovalva, the story turns into something unique. A gentle puzzle of a story, set in a quiet, refined castle/city filled with librarians, pharmacists and washerwomen (gender stereotypes are hard to shift, clearly). Presumably there’s a milliner around somewhere too because nearly everyone wears elaborate hats. In addition, all the Castrovalvans speak in a lyrical, arcane style which means there’s a sense of poetry being interrupted whenever the regulars have some dialogue. So there’s must be a dialogue coach about the place too.

It’s here that the Doctor realizes the Master (Anthony Ainley, heh heh heh) has maneuvered him into a trap, and that trap is Castrovalva itself. As traps go, it’s elaborate: ‘on the off chance that the Doctor survives the tumble into Event One, I’ll just use space maths to create a fake city which will collapse in on itself, and lure the Doctor into it. I’ll go as far as to populate it with oddly hatted characters who speak like 19th century butlers. Hell, I’ll even dress up as a doddery old codger and wander about in it myself.’ You’ve got to give it to him, he puts some thought into these things.

The Master’s plan is undone when the Doctor realises that the accumulated history of Castrovalva is faked, because although the books appear old, they are also paradoxically up to date. It’s an oblique point to rest a plot on, but there you go. Personally I wonder what 23 volumes of fake Castrovalvan history had in them. Tegan claims unconvincingly that the history is ‘fascinating’, but what could those dusty tomes possibly say? “Day 10,003: clothes were washed, medicants were prepared, wild boar for dinner again.” Surely the Master never expected anyone to actually read those books, as he stayed up, carefully staining the pages with cold tea.

In the end, Adric is torn out of the web, Castrovalva goes to pieces and the Master has his fancy dress torn from his body by angry fake people. The Doctor mobilises his friends into a brisk jog back to the TARDIS. Hard to imagine Tom Baker agreeing to that, and indeed although this hasn’t been an action packed story, it has consigned the fourth Doctor to hazy  memory. A hungover Matthew Waterhouse looks very queasy in these scenes, and while the cameras weren’t rolling, he had a spew on some of that delightful scenery. Poor lad. An erection and gastric ejection in one story. That never happened in Inside the Spaceship.

LINK TO The Enemy of the World: in both stories, the villain keeps a small community of people in ignorance of the shocking true nature of their world.

NEXT TIME: This is a WARNing! We become companions of The Krotons. Great jumping gobstoppers!