Tag Archives: season 11

Female heroism, male template and The Woman Who Fell to Earth (2018)

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Here’s the thing: we’ve never had a female Doctor before.

I know. Thank you, Captain Obvious. But let me explain.

There was a time when female heroes were rare. Particularly rare on TV and in films. I’m a child of the 70s, so I remember those days well. But things have changed.

These days, it’s not hard to find female heroes in popular culture, and film and TV is helping break down tired old stereotypes. Everything from police procedural dramas to super hero blockbusters have female leads. It’s not groundbreaking or even unusual to see female-led drama. Often, these women take on heroic tasks which were traditionally the sole province of men. So we see women who can fight. Women who can solve mysteries. Women who can fix things. Women who can be funny.

But even with female heroism being commonplace, watching Jodie Whittaker take on the role of the Doctor is a revelation. And it’s not because the show suddenly has a female lead being smart. Or being brave. Or being funny. It’s because we at last have a female lead being all of these things at once.

This story reminded me what a multifaceted character the Doctor is. That’s not so rare, if you’re thinking about blokes in fiction. Male heroes are, for some reason, allowed to be many things at once. The Doctor, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Spider-Man, Luke Skywalker, Starlord… you can find male poly-heroes everywhere. But female heroes tend to be specialists. Geniuses, warriors, adventurers and clowns – take your choice of one.

So we’ve seen plenty of female heroes, but we’ve never had a female Doctor before. That’s why Whittaker’s not just an innovation for Doctor Who but for popular culture as a whole. It’s why her Doctor feels so brilliantly new and necessary.

***

So exactly who is a female Doctor meant to be?

I know! Not so Captain Obvious now, right?

Showrunner Chris Chibnall has taken the sensible decision to underplay the Doctor’s gender change. It’s a move intended, I suspect, to position the essential Doctorness of the character as unchanged, regardless of whether she’s played by a man or a woman. And to show that the series functions in the same way, whether it has a male or female Doctor. There’s no need to continually reference the gender change and do so would patronise everyone involved. (Still, it makes me wonder how Steven Moffat would have handled it. Do you think we would have got through her first season without a boob joke? I can’t imagine it).

But the deliberate effort to present an image of, “business as usual, regardless whether it’s him or her” leaves a couple of questions unanswered. Should the thirteenth Doctor be essentially the same character as her male predecessors, or should she take this opportunity to be a distinctly female Doctor? Should she be a female variant on an established template, or should create a whole new template? And if our first ever female Doctor just behaves like all the men who came before her, then exactly what is new?

To offer some examples: as Series 11 has played out, some have voiced a wish for the Doctor to be more assertive and confrontational. Some have wanted her to stand up to the villains more frequently and more forcefully. Some have wanted moments of righteous anger. Why? Because these are all things previous Doctors have done.

So in one sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to want the thirteenth Doctor to get to do all the things male Doctors have done, particularly if things like taking down a villain or losing your rag at a particularly despicable person are seen as characteristically Doctorly things to do. We want her to do everything the various hes could.

But on the other hand, it seems perverse to want our first female Doctor to behave just like all the men we’ve seen before. Shouldn’t we expect, if not relish, seeing her approach problems differently to her male counterparts? Shouldn’t we see the strength in this?

Perhaps what we’re discovering is that there’s a set of things we expect every Doctor to be able to do – and to get the chance to do. Blow up a Dalek. Talk down a villain. Punch the neutron flow and reverse the polarity of a racist. If we didn’t see a female Doctor do these essentially Doctorish things, she’d feel inauthentic.

But every time she does something different to her predecessors, every time she takes a subtler approach, or lets her companions take the spotlight or plays a moment with unexpected empathy, we seem to be asking why she’s not acting like a male Doctor. And that feels weird to me. If Chibnall had cast a man as the thirteenth Doctor, would we be questioning his every variation from the Doctorly norm? Would we more readily accept each idiosyncrasy as an innovation on a standard template, rather than questioning if he should be more like what’s come before?

We will never know. But I fear this will haunt Whittaker’s time as the Doctor. This tug-of-war between being the same and being different.

***

Funnily enough, concerns about the thirteenth Doctor’s passivity, her lack of confrontational exchanges and so on date from after The Woman Who Fell to Earth. Here she does face up to the big bad. And she does get to do the full gamut of Doctory traits (save a moment of sudden, unexpected anger) and with moments of steely determination, plus welding stuff. And she gets to jump off a crane, in a big moment of physicality. She’s Doctor af.

But she is showing us new elements to our favourite character too. She latches on to the first set of people she sees and adopts them as her “fam”. She takes an almost parental interest in Ryan (Tosin Cole), and a BFF relationship with Yaz (Mandip Gill). We start to see hints of the relentlessly enthusiastic fun-seeker she’ll shortly become. Her sparking new mind is constantly on the edge of distraction. She’s more interested in running mental rings around her opponents than blowing them up. And perhaps more so than any Doctor before her, she wants to connect with the people around her and to engage with humanity.

“We can evolve while still staying true to who we are,” the Doctor says as she finally regains her sense of self.  “We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.” If she gets the space to do just that, we really will have an extraordinary Doctor to travel with over the next few seasons.

So sayeth Captain Obvious again.

LINK TO The Lie of the Land: Neither story features the TARDIS.

NEXT TIME… How is it you can be such a stupid, stubborn, irrational and thoroughly objectionable old idiot?! It’s dinner for two with The Two Doctors.

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Rugrats, reactionaries and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974)

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I have a confession to make. I watch other Whos outside my random list. Well of course I do. You wouldn’t have me not watch new episodes like as they go to air, right? I might have missed the rampant continuity fest that was The Magician’s Apprentice, or as I like to think of it, Return to the Planet of the Genesis of the Daleks. Or The Daleks’ and Master’s PlansOh I mock, but pay me no heed. I squeed like the rest of you.

But it’s more than that. Because I have a little cuckoo in my nest. 3 year old Master Spandrell. Turns out he loves Doctor Who. Where did he get that from, I wonder? Mrs Spandrell says he heard the theme tune in utero and it’s had an inculcating effect. He never stood a chance.

Problem is, how do you choose a Doctor Who story for a toddler? Sure it’s a family show, but it’s not really designed for the Peppa Pig audience. You don’t want to show him something which is going to traumatise him for life. I’m sure I read that in the parenting manual.

So my random Who watching gets interrupted by Master Spandrell’s curated Who watching. He started watching Who videos on YouTube, with a particular taste for endless loops of the various title sequences (on one hand very annoying, on the other… 15 blissful minutes of quiet toddler). Soon, he stepped things up and picked up a copy of The Ark in Space DVD (the original-and-thus-not-that-special edition, for those playing along at home) and demanded it be displayed for his viewing pleasure.

Now you may think that’s a poor choice for someone specifically aiming to not traumatise their child. But here’s the thing; The Ark in Space is just fine for him. The monster moments are rare and too low budget to bother him. And least that’s how it seems to me right now. If he turns into a malignant parasitic creature seeking to usurp the human race, this post will serve as evidence of where it all started to go wrong.

But what else to let him watch? Despite classic Who‘s low rent production values, I still think most of it is too scary for him. But I was thinking too about his other obsession, dinosaurs. And surely there’s no greater intersection between these two things than Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Well, there’s also Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which he likes too. But not like he likes Invasion of the Dinosaurs. He’s loves loves loves it, rubber dinosaurs and all. ‘Raaaa!’, he calls out when that first Tyrannosaurus bursts out of that model building. ‘Sarah!’, he cries when this particular magician’s apprentice gets bumped on the head by a falling four-by-two. ‘Doctor on holiday!, he cries when he throws his Jon Pertwee micro figure over the fence… But I digress.

So we have watched it, I don’t know, about 50 times in recent months. Man, I have been waiting for this one to pop up for freaking ages. ‘Cause I know this fecker intimately.

****

Invasion of the Dinosaurs is a classic story which pulls off a new series trick; the Doctor has been away from Earth for a while and taken his eye off the ball. In the meantime, things have gone to all sorts of shit. Well four things, and some lizards. It’s a good structure because it means you get to skip all the set up stuff and get straight to the main game. Although this is slightly undermined if your main game consists of six talky episodes.

The story’s length is not its strength. The first episode is a masterclass is stalling until we get to a point where a dinosaur can burst out of a building (the Brigadier’s – ever stoic Nicholas Courtney – dialogue gets increasingly convoluted as he tries to find new ways of avoiding saying ‘dinosaurs’). The fifth episode is one long chase scene. It’s a story which can’t be bothered hiding its padding.

And the plot repeats itself. Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen, enjoying the lion’s share of the investigating and deducing here) is twice fooled into trusting one of the story’s many conspirators (nearly everyone we meet is in on the game), and both times she realises it when trapped in a lift disguised as a cupboard. She’s twice imprisoned in the bad guys’ fake spacecraft. The Doctor (the Pert, bouffant in full sail) locates the enemy’s base only to be maneuvered out of it and sent back to UNIT. It all feels a bit sedate.

Which is odd because this is a story with an embarrassment of cracking premises. Dinosaurs amok in modern London. People tricked into manning a fake spaceship. A plot to roll back time. A traitor in the UNIT family. There’s enough here for half a series. Not to mention that the whole thing’s almost a rebuttal of the previous year’s The Green Death where the Doctor sided with a group of environmental activists. Here, they’re part of the problem not the solution.

The DVD documentary about this story is presented by the very brainy Matthew Sweet, who argues that there’s much more to this story than its terrible lizards. He points out that script writer Malcolm Hulke’s shot at the environmental movement is a bit odd, because it’s a cause normally with the left side of politics and Hulke was a confirmed communist. Script editor Terrance Dicks is on hand to point out that extreme leftist villains are creepier than those on the extreme right because they justify their actions by saying “it’s for your own good.”

But this is not, I think, an example of Hulke taking aim at his leftist compadres. If we have learned anything from the two previous random Hulkes (the one with the misunderstood reptilian monsters and the one with the misunderstood reptilian monsters, neither of which is The Silurians) we can see that the one thing he really hated was authority. Bureaucrats, soldiers and colonial mandarins are stupid, corrupt or both.

The gang of no good do gooders in Invasion are all of this ilk, with a mad professor (of which university?) thrown into the bargain. It’s not that Hulke is saying the left is as bad as the right. He’s saying don’t let the establishment co-opt your leftist ideals. You watch what they’ll do to them! They’ll find a way to screw it up! The ideals of The Green Death live on. Just don’t let anyone wearing a tie anywhere near them.

*****

Master Spandrell of course cares nothing about any of this. He wants you to skip over the scenes of dull people talking. And sadly, he can’t abide Matthew Sweet. But he loves the bit where the Pert drives a jeep under a dinosaur’s legs. And the bit where a brontosaurus and a tyrannosaurus go at each other. What’s that you say? The dinosaurs look terrible? He hasn’t noticed. Just as he hasn’t noticed that Noah’s hand in The Ark in Space is made of bubble wrap. How brilliant to be able to watch classic Who as carefree as that.

LINK to State of Decay. Script Editor/writer Terrance Dicks worked on both.

NEXT TIME… We go up the Orinoco in search of the Black Orchid. Top hole!

Funny, scary and The Time Warrior (1973)

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I thought it would be fun, identifying links to these disparate stories. And it is; it’s part of the appeal of watching Doctor Who randomly. But, blimey, it can be difficult sometimes. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted trying to find something which linked Death to the Daleks with Aliens of London. (Mostly because I didn’t actually count those hours. But it was more time than a grown man should spend wondering about these things. Still, you’re guilty of that too right? Please tell me you are.)

And so it was that I let out a little cheer when my random Who generator spat out The Time Warrior right after it spat out The Sontaran Stratagem. Hooray! An easy one. And so with some delight,  I’m mixing it up a bit this entry and starting with…

LINKS to The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky: They both have Sontarans in ’em. And they both feature UNIT. Job done!

But actually, there are many more links. It’s clear that The Sontaran Stratagem owes much to The Time Warrior and lovingly celebrates it. Many of The Time Warrior‘s greatest hits are replayed. The word ‘thorax’, memorably evoked in the former gets name checked in the latter. When the Tenth Doctor indulges in some plot exposition about the Sontarans’ achilles heel, their probic vent, he paraphrases the time warrior himself, Sontaran office Linx, saying it means they must always face their enemies. “Isn’t that brilliant?”, he gushes like a fanboy. Then there’s the famous cliffhanger to The Time Warrior Part One, where Linx takes off his helmet to reveal an equally dome like head. General Staal performs an encore in The Sontaran Stratagem. (In fact it’s repeated often in Sontaran stories; it’s their signature move).

Let’s linger on that moment for a moment: it’s sometimes stated that the genius of that moment is that it’s a joke – Linx’s head is the same shape as his helmet. And as jokes go, it’s fine. But it’s not a strong enough joke to be the cliffhanger to the first episode of a story, nay a season.

Remember that when Part One of The Time Warrior was broadcast, we didn’t know what a Sontaran was. We had no idea what was under that helmet. And that’s what writer Robert Holmes and director Alan Bromley wanted us to be thinking about throughout those opening 25 minutes… WTF is under that helmet?!

That cliffhanger is what we’ve been waiting for. Even when the moment comes, Linx delays our gratification a little further, giving a little sheepish glance to either side to see if anyone’s around. The Doctor’s there too, spying on Linx, as fascinated as us. Then Linx finally pulls off that helmet, and reveals that grotesque, troll-like head. Do we laugh? Maybe. Are we thrilled? Definitely. It’s funny/scary.

The Sontarans have come so familiar to us now, they’re part of the Doctor Who furniture. I think we forget how impressive that combination of costume, mask and performance is. Linx, as played by Kevin Lindsay, brings lots of scary. A gravelly voiced brute and strong as he is cunning. He easily wins a dust up with Jon Pertwee’s karate loving Doctor. I’m one of the children he frightened, because he could outwit you and beat you up; a villain and a monster.

He’s is a long way from Strax, the Eleventh Doctor’s bumbling Sontaran ally. Strax is dumb and funny. He’s a reluctant nurse. He can’t go two sentences without wishing for a weapon or spouting some bolshie nonsense. He’s funny and hugely popular. But he’s the end result of a gradual toning down of the Sontarans. They’ve now all but lost their Linxy menace and become entirely Straxy figures of fun. And one can hardly blame New Who’s producers for this; Sontarans are after all war mongering potatoes. There’s fun to be had, so we should have it. (And it’s telling that the only classic Doctor Who monster to make the leap to childrens’ series The Sarah Jane Adventure is the Sontarans. Altogether more fun than Cybermen or Daleks.)

Writer Robert Holmes, the master, of course knew that too. He intended it, and it shows throughout The Time Warrior. After all, the first thing Linx does is plant a natty little flag on the earth’s surface and claim the planet, its moons and satellites, purely for us to laugh at his pomposity. Later on he calls the philosophy of the Time Lords “egalitarian twaddle”. And when he finds out that humans come in both male and female varieties, he says “it is an inefficient system. You should change it.”

Holmes knew how to make a monster funny/scary, and frankly you can have your Slitheen, your Judoon and your Graske, this is how you do it. But when the Sontarans next come back, I’m hoping for as much scary as funny.

NEXT TIME: Boom! Boom? BOOM! Battlefield.

Cover art, saxophone music and Death to the Daleks (1974)

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Some Doctor Who stories are defined by what happens in them. The Green Death, for instance, will forever be The One With The Giant Maggots (an episode of Friends we’d all like to see, I think). Earthshock, The One Where Adric Died. Victory of the Daleks, The One with The Dalek Design Everyone Hated. (Bit harsh, but a bit true).

To me though, Death to the Daleks is the ’burning Dalek’ story, and is defined not by what happens in it, but by the one image most associated with it; that of a Dalek on fire. It comes from an incident in Episode Two, when the Daleks have come under attack from the local inhabitants of this week’s planet, the quarry-like Exxilon. The Exxilons are armed only with spears, arrows and a can-do attitude, and they set on one Dalek, who (inexplicably) explodes and catches fire.

That provided the on set photographer with a great opportunity to snap away, and so we have lots of photos of the Dalek flambe. I think I’m right in saying that’s the first (only?) time we’ve seen a Dalek on fire. It’s a moment which must have stuck in the audience’s collective memory. When Roy Knipe came to paint the cover of the Target novelisation, the exploding Dalek was the image he chose. And it’s a great cover; colourful, eye catching, unit shifting. It had a life beyond the novelisation too; there was certainly a poster of it and I think it was used as a promotional image for the book range too. If there was a Doctor Who art prize (and there should be), this would surely be a contender.

That image pursues Death to the Daleks through all its incarnations; the VHS release, the Target reprint, the DVD release all feature an exploding or burning Dalek. It seems you can’t release Death to the Daleks in any format without a Dalek in distress on the cover. The story’s unusually declamatory title probably skews the cover designs in this direction, but there is some form here in other stories.  It’s understandable Horror of Fang Rock needs a lighthouse on it no matter the format, but you also, apparently, must have an image of the Doctor carrying a load of old rope. It’s mandatory, it seems, to have clockwork cogs on any release of The Invasion of Time.  And so on.

The other element which, um, distinguishes Death is its groovy, saxophoney music. It belongs to a subset of Doctor Who stories from the late sixties and throughout the seventies which I think of as the “not Dudleys”. And as genius as regular series composer Dudley Simpson’s work is, you can have too much of a good thing, and so the handful of stories from this period he didn’t score stand out. Cary Blyton (whose most famous work is not from Doctor Who, but the theme song to Bananas in Pyjamas, long burnt into the memory of Australians and their kids) produced three eclectic Not Dudley scores, and Death‘s is the oddest.

It’s difficult to imagine the train of thought which starts with “what’s the most effective way to score a Doctor Who?” And ends with “Why, with a saxophone quartet, of course!”. Dudley never had many players at his disposal but he did seek to use a variety of instruments. Blyton on the other hand must have been a passionate advocate for saxophone’s versatility to devote a whole serial to showcasing it. The score is at its most distinctive when it uses Blyton’s theme for the Daleks, which climbs and falls through a series of scales, giving them a faintly Clouseau-esque appeal. You know the one I’m talking about, don’t you? Stuck in your head now? If not, relive it here .

So those are the stand out elements of Death to the Daleks: it’s book cover and its music (and I’m tempted to add the Dalek which stands in shot idle, operator-less, hoping the viewers won’t notice). Jeez, that must make it a fairly unremarkable story in its own right?

Um, yes. Yes it does. Well, more generic than unremarkable. At this stage, writer Terry Nation was well into recycling elements from his previous stories. Once again, a small group of space exlporers are at odds with the Daleks. Once again, there’s a hostile indigenous species. Inevitably, there’s mining. Even the Exxilon’s living city, sometimes cited as the story’s stand out idea, is really just a bigger badder version of a similar machine which got too big for its boots from The Keys of Marinus.

But there is one fresh and unique idea at this story’s heart: that robbed of power, the Doctor and the Daleks are forced to collaborate. That scenario has legs even today. Imagine: the current Doctor discovers a colossal threat – a new breed of vicious, power-mad Time Lords wannabees perhaps. So he’s forced to align himself with the only force we knows can beat such a threat – his oldest enemies. The Doctor standing alongside legions of Daleks. A new time war is declared. Cue end of episode. 

I’d watch that. Even if they drenched it in saxophone music.

LINK to The Awakening. In both, the Doctor’s female companion is threatened with being burned alive. At least I think that’s what’s suggested in Death; it’s never actually stated how the Exxilons are going to sacrifice Sarah, but there’s a shot of her staring into some flames. Good enough for me. After all, The Awakening is the story of tenuous links.

NEXT TIME… You’re so gay! Random’s first Eccleston story is Aliens of London/World War Three.