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Celebrity, history and The Unquiet Dead (2005)

unquiet

Remember the celebrity historical? It used to be a thing. A real, live, it-can-be-our-second/third/fourth-episode kinda thing. Through it we met all sorts of famous dead people – Queen Victoria, Madame du Pompadour, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie. And it starts here, with a tale of ghosts and walking cadavers with Charles Dickens in ye olde Cardiff.

It was a shrewd move by showrunner Russell T Davies to include this episode in the revamped series’ first year. Those first three episodes of his version of the show are set in the present, the future and the past respectively; a shorthand statement of what the show’s about. A historical adventure tells a new audience that this series isn’t going to be all spaceships and laser beams every week. But the inclusion of a famous historical figure, plus some alien bad guys, gives that same audience a way into these old world adventures without them feeling like they’re being subjected to some snoozy old history lesson.

It also gives the production personnel something on which they can show off their skills: period drama. Former script editor Andrew Cartmel first vocalised what had been staring viewers in the face for years – that the BBC could pull off a more convincing historical drama than a science fiction epic. Despite new Who‘s increased budget, there’s still some truth in this, plus time and money saved in recreating familiar historical sets and costumes rather than dreaming them up anew. Not to mention that a well known star playing a well known historical figure makes for great publicity.

Writer Mark Gatiss sets the template for the celebrity historical in this macabre episode. He chooses a well known historical figure, one with an inkling for the the supernatural. Charles Dickens (Simon Callow) might be a daunting figure for viewers (me included) who have never finished any of his mighty tomes (I know, I know! I’ll get to them! Right after The Doctor Who Cookbook) but he proves a prudent choice, with the Doctor (an energized Christopher Eccleston) and Rose (an energetic Billie Piper) turning up just at a point of personal existential crisis. He teams up with the our heroes, becoming a de factor companion and along the way, his life is changed for the better by the experience. It’s a pattern which holds more or less up until and including Vincent and the Doctor.

Then things change. With The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, where Richard Nixon, who under the old template for celebrity historicals might have been expected to be the episode’s focus, but now becomes just a notable supporting character. In their respective episodes, Queens Nefertiti of Egypt and Elizabeth I of England are similarly exotic side dishes, not the main meal. By the time we get to Peter Capaldi’s era, the celebrity historical has been dropped altogether. Clara makes do with sly references to her flirty adventures with Jane Austen. That name dropping’s enough; we don’t need to see the Doctor meet another historical British writer. We’ve been there done that.

(Thank Rassilon. I can’t stand Austen. A Doctor Who encounter with her sounds awful. It’d be called Time and Temerity, or Space and Speciousness or something. Clara would be proposed to by some alien dressed up in period costume, via a series of letters delivered by horse and cart and everything would take weeks. Yawn. Unless it was a Blackadder inspired version where Jane Austen turns out to be “a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush”. Yes, I’d watch that.)

So now the celebrity historical, once a mainstay of any Doctor Who season is out of vogue. No doubt famous people from history will continue to turn up, but more episodes showcasing any given figure of history seems unlikely. It’s a shame, because having our heroes rub shoulders with someone we know from history is one of those uniquely Doctor Who ideas. And it’s been with the show since its earliest years, where we met Marco Polo, Nero, Richard I and Doc Holliday. If you squint, it even stays true to the show’s original remit to be slightly educational. The Unquiet Dead, for instance, manages to trickle out an abbreviated biography of Dickens and his work.

Still, it’s fun to fill in future fantasy seasons with celebrity historicals which still one day might come to pass. Oscar Wilde’s episode would riff on The Picture of Dorian Gray.  That other OW, Orson Wells already has one in Big Finish’s universe – by Mark Gatiss, no less – which could be adapted. Sylvester McCoy’s suggestion of the Doctor meeting Richard III could finally come to fruition. What about JFK, given his and the show’s association with November 1963? Galileo? Da Vinci? The Beatles? Surely we can’t let Timelash be the definitive Doctor Who appearance by HG Wells. Nor let Einstein be claimed by the ignominious Time and the Rani.

As for the story itself, it’s pleasingly creepy, with enough black humour in it to recall more than a few camp, schlocky horror films. Its gleefully brash use of walking cadavers as monsters is stronger stuff than the show eventual settled into; to this day Mrs Spandrell can’t get past the opening pre-credit sequence with old Mrs Peace (Jennifer Hill) stumbling through the streets, howling. It strays into interesting moral territory when the Doctor finds virtue in the Gelth’s alleged plan to inhabit the bodies of human dead to save their species, and Rose is opposed to the idea. But the last minute u-turn of the Gelth into treacherous invaders neutralizes that debate which might have lead the story to something other than a “it’s time to stop the monsters now” kind of ending.

Truth be told, as good as The Unquiet Dead is, nearly all its tricks – be they ghost stories, Victoriana or zombified monsters – have been done better by later stories. Its lasting claim to fame is showing us how these celebrity historicals work and inventing a new sub-genre for 21st century Who. If they really have gone forever, then that’s its legacy – creating a Who specific subset right up there with ‘base under siege’, ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘multi-Doctor’.

But if they ever come back, I’ve still got my list of candidates: Michelangelo, Louis Pasteur, Elvis, even Mrs Malaprop… sorry, that’s Time and the Rani again. It sneaks in everywhere!

LINK TO Into the Dalek: uncertainty about whether the monsters are good or evil.

NEXT TIME… well, he didn’t come by Shetland pony, Jamie! We defrost The Ice Warriors

 

 

Ms Coats’ rules, Mr Jones’ mysteries and The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit (2006)

IDA: But Doctor, what did you find down there? That creature, what was it?

DOCTOR: I don’t know. Never did decipher that writing. But that’s good. Day I know everything? Might as well stop.

ROSE: What do you think it was, really?

DOCTOR: I think we beat it. That’s good enough for me.

Films and TV programs generally explain everything about the story they’re telling. They leave no stone unturned, they explain all the relevant events and all the characters’ motivations. Generally speaking, this is good practice. If they didn’t do this, we’d complain about sloppy writing, and about story threads left untied.

In this way, stories are really not like real life, where it’s quite common to not find out everything. Some things that happen to us remain unexplained forever. We never find out exactly what happened. That, as they say, is life.

There are quite a few things about The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit that we never get to the bottom of, the true nature of the Beast being just one of them. Why, for instance, can it not speak in its bestial form, but can when possessing an Ood? How can it speak out of thin air when tormenting archaeologist Toby Zed (Will Thorp)? Why does it suddenly appear as a hologram on the control deck? I’m prepared to accept that it can somehow transfer the spooky rock writing to Toby’s hands and face when it possesses him, and make it appear and disappear at will, but how can he stand on the surface of Krop Tor unprotected and survive? And why, in the close knit team of Sanctuary Base 6, do two dialogue-less crew members, unfortunately killed by Ood, not have names? (I like to think of them as Mr Cannon and Ms Fodder, though acting Captain Zachary Cross Flame (Shaun Parkes) doesn’t even list them in his litany of the dead at the story’s end, so we’ll never know.)

The Doctor’s right. Not knowing can be good. If we’re satisfied with everything else; the story, the direction, the atmosphere. We’ll go along with things for a surprising amount of time. And it helps that The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit gets so much right; well defined characters played by able actors, some great design work that allows us to forgive the inevitable running along corridors,  and some directorial flourishes straight out of a 1980s horror film. And if there’s some mystery left over about origins and motivations, maybe it just makes the whole thing that bit more unsettling.

****

But on the other hand… consider No. 19 of Emma Coats’ 22 rules of storytelling, as observed from working on Pixar films.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Both of these apply to this story and oddly enough both involve the TARDIS. When a quake hits the Sanctuary base, four of its storage bays fall into centre of the planet. As it happens, the TARDIS is in one of those storage bays, making life very tricky for the Doctor (David Tennant) and Rose (Billie Piper). That’s a coincidence which gets our heroes into trouble, and they worry about it from that point forward, even going as far as to contemplate getting a mortgage. (The Doctor looks horrified, so presumably he’s thinking of how much he’ll have to fork out for a one-bedder in Sydney. And those things aint bigger on the inside.)

But towards the end of the story, when the Doctor is facing the Beast alone, deep within the planet’s underworld, the TARDIS miraculously turns up. And handily, at exactly the right time to save the day. That’s the second kind of coincidence. I’d hesitate to call it cheating. But it’s one of those illusion shattering moments. A real shame too, because up until then the story had stayed this side of believability.

Back when talking about The Power of Three, I’d mentioned Speed and the bus jumping over the gap in the overpass. The TARDIS turning up in the final reel is this story’s bus moment. But it’s interesting how much it got away with before that happened. The Beast and its inconsistent ability to speak? Toby surviving on the planet’s surface? All this the story’s pace and slick direction helped hide. But when the TARDIS shows up, we feel that bus land with a thud. Who can tell why? More mysteries. Perhaps Ms Coats knows.

****

The overall impression of this story is of scary things left unexplained. Which in a way is absolutely fitting for a tale which is really about the nature of belief. Even the Doctor, normally silent on the question of faith, is forced to question what he holds as true and the reasons why. But in order to defeat the Beast, he has to take a giant leap of faith; he has to cut off Rose’s escape route, while trusting that she has the smarts to get herself out of trouble. Rose too has exhibited an unfailing belief that the Doctor would find a way back from the base of the pit, and indeed he does. In both cases, faith gets rewarded.

This air of mystery leaks out of its fictional universe and into ours as well. In normal circumstances we’d turn to the story’s writer to give us some insight into all these narrative gaps. But Matt Jones has been silent on the topic, for over ten years. Never giving an interview, and least none I’ve seen (correct me in the comments if you can). In fact, is he the only new series writer to not talk about his script, not in press interviews, or DVD commentaries or on Doctor Who Confidential? As silent as that voiceless Beast stuck down the pit.

The day we know everything about The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit? I don’t think it’ll ever come.

LINK TO The Day of the Doctor: both star Tennant and Piper. Hmm, Tennant and Piper. Precocious children’s names bestowed by posh parents or a seventies pop duo?

NEXT TIME… it’s all aboard Tardis with Dr. Who, Susie, Tom and Louise as we go back to the cinema for Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goosesteps, quicksteps and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)

empty-child

I’m thinking of a Doctor Who DVD box set – the World War II stories. It consists of Let’s Kill Hitler, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the first bit), The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the rest of it), Victory of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric. It could come in a special edition gas mask shaped tin. You could press a button and hear it say, ‘are you my Mummy?’ It would fly off the shelves like a Lancaster bomber or maybe float off gently like a barrage balloon.

Why has World War II proven such fertile ground in which to grow Doctor Who, particularly as conceived by Steven Moffat? On the face of it, it’s subject matter which should be too edgy for the series. Perhaps it’s because the two have long been connected.

When Doctor Who started, it was 18 years since the war had ended. Its influence was still being felt; in the series’ initial conception, you’ll recall, the Doctor was fleeing from a galactic war. The first Dalek story references the Nazis heavily, and the second imagines Britain overrun with fascist invaders. Even The doddery old Sensorites is a story of soldiers left behind, fighting a war long since over.

And when the show returned to 1963 for Remembrance of the Daleks, characters like Ratcliffe and Harry recalled the war; the novelisation has Rachel Jensen remembering surviving the blitz. So the genesis of this show is linked to the war, and to British pride of triumphing against overwhelming odds. In The Empty Child, the Doctor (U-boat captain Christopher Eccleston) gives voice to this pride:

Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it. Nothing. Until one, tiny, damp little island says no. No. Not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me.

William Hartnell’s Doctor never did end up running from that mysterious alien war, but Eccleston’s Doctor did. It’s odd that of all the stories in that first year of rejuvenated Who, this one, set in a war so close to the series’ home, is the one that dwells on the time war the least. Not at all in fact, even though our war veteran Doctor is smack in the middle of events which should feel grimly familiar. But that’s because cosmic angst is not on Moffat’s agenda.

No, he wants to scare children and get the Doctor laid.

***

The first part of that he does with consummate style. He begins with a haunting image: a five year old boy in a gas mask. This boy terrifies those around him, but his plaintiff cries resonate with any adult who has half a heart: ‘Please let me in, Mummy. I’m scared of the bombs’. Who wouldn’t want to embrace that child, take him in, make him safe?

But touching this boy is the one thing you can’t do. It’s the next of Moffat’s steps towards creating something really creepy. Touch the boy and you don’t quite die, but your life is emptied out of you. The next thing you know a gas mask is forcing its way up your throat and then your face becomes the gas mask. A physical amalgamation of flesh and object. There’s never been anything quite like it in Doctor Who.

His final trick is to set it in the Blitz, where death could fall from the sky at a moment’s notice. The characters we meet are already living under incredible stress. They’re permanently scared and hungry and under siege from an enemy they can’t protect themselves from. The threat represented by the empty child is not that dissimilar from that brought by the Germans, though far more insidious.

From there on in, Moffat pulls the familiar tricks to bring the scares: you’re surrounded by them, don’t let them touch you, you think you’re safe but you’re not, time’s running out and it’s actually in the room with you. Those are standard narrative driven frights, brought to life by James Hawes’ vivid direction. But they are the symptoms, not the cause of this terror. The cause is those bold, unsettling concepts: a boy in a gas mask, a mask that eats your face, death calling at any time and you with no defence.

***

Moffat ignores the time war. But this first series’ other major obsession, the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper), is front and centre. Earlier in the season, wannabe companion Adam Mitchell had been introduced to throw a gooseberry at the Doctor and Rose’s quietly developing romance. But he proved no contest. In the previous episode, Father’s Day,  Rose wondered, ‘Why does everyone think we’re a couple?’ Well, because you constantly act like one, I suppose.

Moffat introduces a new competitor for Rose’s affections, and this one’s a contender: tall, dark and handsome, plus he’s got his own spaceship. Captain Jack (John Barrowman) will become very familiar to us in future years and his omnisexual appetite will become one of his defining characteristics. But here he’s the Doctor’s rival and Rose feels an immediate attraction to him. It’s clear the Doctor’s going to have to lift his game.

There can only be one winner. But Jack eventually retreats to his spaceship, shamefully realising his responsibility in bringing the Chula nanogenes to Earth. The Doctor solves the problem at hand, by a combination of luck and smarts, and brings everyone back to life. There’s no contest between these two, in the end. ‘I’m on fire!’ he roars in triumph as the story comes to close.

So of course he gets the girl. And they end up dancing joyously around the console room in celebration. For the first time, we see dancing presented as a metaphor for sex, so it’s hard to see that hop as anything but a hugely enjoyable post-match shag. It’s even in the title: The Doctor Dances.  Well, perhaps it would have been a step too far to call it The Doctor Loses his Cherry.

Hey, maybe there’s another potential boxset here: the (ahem) Dancing Stories. It would go The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace… and um, does the Drunk Giraffe count?

LINK TO Planet of the Dead. Both have Captains.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: a howler when during the performance of ‘It had to be you’ when the lyrics ‘with all your faults, I love you still’ becomes ‘when I uphold silence still’. Um, what?

NEXT TIME: It’s time to step out on the balcony and wave a tentacle at Terror of the Zygons.

Old days, new ways and School Reunion (2006)

school

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

SARAH: I waited for you. I missed you.

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

SARAH: You were my life.

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

Bouquets, Botcherbies and Father’s Day (2005)

fathers

The last time I randomed a story by Paul Cornell, I speculated on which Doctor Who stories contained each Doctor’s best performances. The equivalent of awarding Oscars for Doctors. 2005 weepy Father’s Day gives me the chance to offer a (ahem) companion piece.

Which companions would we give Oscars too? Actually, maybe we should call them Botcherbies, after Doctor Who‘s own thespian Oscar from The Two Doctors. And then we won’t be infringing any trademarks.

(This reminds me of one of my favourite passages from Robert Holmes’ masterful novelisation of that story, where Oscar recounts that a critic of the Boston Globe said that one of his performances was ‘quite monumental’, but then added ‘in its ineptitude’. That’s apropos of nothing. I just love that book.)

This episode, carefully plotted and expertly directed, is heartbreaking and there’s not many Doctor Who stories you can say that about it. Billie Piper seizes the opportunity to reveal a vulnerability in Rose, and in doing so gives her best performance in the role. This script asks a lot of her – to show delight turning to disillusionment and the sheer raw grief of losing a parent –  and there isn’t a moment when her performance feels false or pushed too far. She’s outstanding.

So a Botcherby nod for Piper. Who else should we dish out nominations to? With the caveat that not every companion gets the chance to star in an episode like Father’s Day, where the plot revolves around them. It’s pretty hard, for instance, to pinpoint a standout performance for Louise Jameson. Even though she was excellent as Leela in all her stories, she was never given a story which focused on her character and gave her a chance to show what she could do. We could say that about many a companion, hopefully without causing offence by omission.

When a companion gets an episode which concentrates on them, there’s a chance to outshine even the Doctor. Catherine Tate in Turn Left is a spectacular example. Few would have guessed after her debut performance in The Runaway Bride that the character of Donna could generate the gravitas needed to have her be our guide through post-apocalyptic England. Tate nails it, being brave and scared, embarking on a suicide mission to the past to save the future. Out of the combination of comic character and harrowing setting, something truly touching emerges.

Classic Who gave its companions fewer chances to hog the limelight. Some had to wait until their encore performances to offer they’re best work. I love Nicholas Courtney’s performance in Mawdryn Undead, which gives us more of an insight into the Brigadier than we had in seven years of UNIT stories. Here, he gives us two versions of the same character, and makes them both instantly recognisable through body movement and demeanor. For the first time, we see the deleterious effects of being part of the Doctor’s retinue, and in the Brigadier’s case it’s a taste of post traumatic stress disorder. One of my favorites.

Years later, Elisabeth Sladen would get the chance to give a similar character reading in School Reunion, and she also manages expresses the loss and longing of life without the Doctor, despite the script’s tiresome efforts to whip up Doctor jealousy between her and Rose. It’s a touching performance, but for me her Botcherby worthy turn lies in the classic series, specifically in The Hand of Fear. Her ‘possessed’ acting in that story is particularly eerie but of course, it’s those last few scenes when she’s leaving the Doctor that her greatness is really on show: funny, sad and so clearly expressing so much which is unsaid, it alone is worth the price of admission.

The 1960s episodes don’t give our companion friends much to work with, as this was an era which paid their roles little consistent attention, but how about Jacqueline Hill in The Aztecs? It’s those scenes with Tlotoxl that I’m thinking of, showing Barbara’s inner strength and poise during her combative moments, but also her deep insecurity when she falters. To pinpoint one moment when she shines, how about when she takes a knife to Tlotoxl’s throat to save Ian? A desperate and surprisingly violent move which a few stories earlier, might have belonged to the Doctor. If we could see  The Massacre of St. Bartholemew’s Eve, we might be able to properly assess Peter Purves in a similar set of circumstances as Steven. But otherwise, the black and white era offers little else in the way of Botcherby worthy companion turns.

Janet Fielding’s performances as the Mara possessed Tegan in Kinda and Snakedance have rightly been praised. On first glance, you might say that Snakedance, which contains the most screen time for evil Tegan, is the Botcherby worthy one. But while the sequel offers greater scope, the original packs the harder punch. Fielding’s performance first as the terrified girl being tormented by an unknown demon in Part One, then as the Mara infested version in Part Two are both palpable and real, and must have been a huge factor in commissioning a sequel. It’s even more of an achievement when you consider she’s left unconscious for the whole of Part Three and returns to her normal state in Part Four, so the considerable impact of that role is achieved in a very short time.

There’s one example of a companion’s best performance being outside Doctor Who. Captain Jack Harkness, of course, has his own show, Torchwood. John Barrowman gives some impressive performances in each series, but it’s the third, Torchwood: Children of Earth which really stands out. Here, Jack is put through an emotional wringer, losing his lover in his attempts to save the world, and ultimately sacrificing the life of his grandson to do so, and atone for the sins of his past. It’s a storyline which Doctor Who could never offer the Doctor, let alone a companion, but in Torchwood, Barrowman gets his chance to show what he can do.

A couple of others kicking around: Sophie Aldred showing us Ace growing up and discovering her inner animal in Survival. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill giving their all in their tear jerking finale The Angels Take Manhattan. Alex Kingston, never better perhaps than on debut in Silence in the Library.  And in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, the story which started this whole thread, I suggested David Tennant gave his Botcherby best, but we shouldn’t overlook Freema Agyeman, who beautifully played lost, desperate, determined and in love all at once.

What have I forgotten? Best turns by companions or Doctors? Comment away, faithful readers. Then let’s start planning the after party.

LINK TO The Mark of the Rani: hmmm. How about both feature companions with dead fathers?

NEXT TIME: You’re too short and bossy, and your nose is all funny. Add the Cybermen and we really do have a Nightmare in Silver.

Television, resurrection and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways (2005)

badwolf

Does any story start and end in such wildly different places as this odd combo we call Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways?

It starts when the Doctor (angsty Christopher Eccleston), Rose (punky fish Billie Piper) and Jack (flashy John Barrowman) find themselves trapped within three different television shows. The Doctor is in fly on the wall voyeur-fest Big Brother. Rose is on quiz show The Weakest Link and Jack on fashion advice whatsit What Not to Wear. They have obviously landed in the reality/lifestyle/game shows department (they were lucky to avoid Celebrity Wrestling). What a pity they didn’t land in the drama department though; we might have seen them in Spooks, or EastEnders. Or maybe even Doctor Who. Now that would be meta.

(If they had, perhaps one of them could have landed in 1966’s The Celestial Toymaker, where Doctor Hartnell and co found themselves competing in a range of deadly games.  Or perhaps in 1985’s Vengeance on Varos where a docile populace is kept oppressed through a steady diet of torture videos. Or maybe in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks where a human is wired into the Daleks’ mainframe to provide the imagination and innovation the Daleks have bred out of themselves. Even in the first year of its relaunch, Doctor Who was happy to mine the best of ideas from its past.)

The episode suggests that these shows, transmitted ad nauseum, survive until the year 200100, but with hindsight that’s obviously wishful thinking. Even watching it in 2016 is like watching a historical re-enactment. Big Brother may be struggling on in some jurisdictions but is no longer the cultural phenomenon it was. The Weakest Link is long since broken and What Not to Wear has been consigned to the great charity bin in the sky.

So what felt like up to the minute social commentary in 2005, feels passé now. But such is the risk of referencing any contemporary cultural products in any piece of media, and it’s happened ever since Susan Foreman grooved out to Johnny Smith and the Common Men so many moons ago.

But what might get forgotten watching Bad Wolf now, is the common thread through those TV shows our heroes are catapulted into. It’s not just that they were so called ‘reality TV’. It’s also that they were unrelentingly cruel and humiliating.

The acid hosts of What Not to Wear regularly reduced their guests to tears with their brutal commentary. The Weakest Link’s host harangued and insulted the show’s contestants, augmenting a format which required contestants to vote each other off. And Big Brother’s cameras never shied away from a contestant reduced to tears, and zoomed in mercilessly on any faux pas. In each case, it wasn’t such a leap to imagine new versions of these programs where people were executed, not simply evicted.

Bad Wolf comes to us pre-spoiled these days, but in 2005, had you remained spoiler-free, you may not have known that the Daleks were going to turn up (although I suspect that most shrewd fans had guessed that they would show up for the season finale). The surreal placement of our three heroes in twisted versions of popular TV shows helped maintain the uncertainty about who the masterminds were behind this plan.  We may not have been surprised if an ethereal Toymaker or a power crazed slug or some similarly bizarre adversary had dreamed up this nutty scheme. But it doesn’t seem like the Daleks’ style at all. That’s nice misdirection from writer Russell T Davies; giving us a plot too surreal for the Daleks and them placing them right in the middle of it.

But actually, surrealism and the Daleks are not necessarily the strangers we might think. As early as 1965 we saw them as exhibits in a space museum, sight seeing on the Empire State Building and sharing the screen with Frankenstein’s monster. The Evil of the Daleks has some of them turned into playful children, and Revelation of the Daleks has them running a funeral parlour. Victory of the Daleks has them serving tea and last year’s The Witch’s Familiar has them consumed by their own excrement. And next random is Daleks in Manhattan which mixes a plot to turn themselves into human hybrids with depression era musicals. So in fact, there’s something about their unstinting metal villainy that makes us want to juxtapose them with the unexpected, in a way which doesn’t happen to say, the Cybermen.

Even so, the madness of Bad Wolf readily gives way to the more traditional action adventure of The Parting of the Ways. We’ve had nine seasons of finales now, so we’ve come to expect a big finish at the end of any given run of episodes. But each one has got successively more complicated, often requiring a detailed understanding of what’s happened in the previous 12 episodes. The Parting of the Ways feels much simpler. There’s a shedload of angry Daleks on the way. The Doctor’s got to stop them with not enough time or resources. As simple and as brilliant as that.

It’s also very grim. Everyone dies, as if in repudiation of the Doctor’s happy exclamation at the end of The Doctor Dances. All the humans, all the Daleks. The cruellest (though most stylish) death is that handed out to would-be companion Lynda with a Y (Jo Joyner), exterminated from a window outside a spaceship by a Dalek, whose headlamps illuminate its famous catchcry in the silent vacuum of space. The most brutal and perfunctory though is all those people in Australasia, whose fate is potently demonstrated through a simple pixelated outline, melted like ice-cream in the sun.

Only our three heroes survive, and they all have to die first and be resurrected, in various fashions. Jack’s revivification will be enough to fuel four seasons of Torchwood. Rose turns into a superbeing with the power to save the day; this will become a recurring theme in RTD’s Who, with the same thing happening to the Doctor and then Donna in subsequent season finales. The Doctor, of course, regenerates, the final iconic element of the old series to be introduced in the new.

What will happen to the Earth, now free of its malevolent broadcast empire, but dealing with melted continents? What happens to everyone still trapped in the games? Doesn’t matter, we’ve moved on. A flash and a bang, and David Tennant’s smile gives us an early but unmistakable signal that we’re in for a very different Doctor to Eccleston’s tortured loner. This story started by presenting reimagined versions of famous TV shows, and it ends as a reimagined version of itself, a famous TV show.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: There is an inventive stab at Raxacoricofallapatorius.

LINK TO The Monster of Peladon: Like the apparitions of Aggedor, the games of Satellite 5 are not what they seem.

NEXT TIME: You put the devil in me. We’re off to old New York for Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks.