Tag Archives: series 1

Poetry, brutality and 100,000 BC (1963)

100000bc

So we come, at last, to Doctor Who’s first story, consisting of a creepy one-episode prologue and a three-episode thriller set in pre-history, with early homo sapiens. Except it’s only really the first Doctor Who story for those lucky enough to have seen in back in 1963. (Or perhaps, for some unsuspecting gamers who have come to it on Twitch). For most of us, it’s our umpteenth Doctor Who story, come to us via video or DVD or latter day repeats, after having been hooked by dozens of stories which came after this one.

From that perspective, as one part of the sprawling armoury of the series, rather than its opening salvo, it’s a very unusual story indeed. It’s not goodies vs baddies. There’s no injustice to overcome. There’s just a group of mismatched people thrown into a bewildering and potentially deadly situation, forced to work together to escape. And disconcertingly, its first episode feels like the rest of Doctor Who we’ve seen, but its caveman installments feel like something completely different and unique.

For a start, the production team makes the brave move of presenting a supporting cast of early humans who can barely communicate. In a wise scripting decision, these grunts don’t grunt, but instead talk in short, simple sentences, not unlike small children. This just about works, although you can’t help but shake your head every so often when the spell breaks – which it tends to when the tribespeople struggle to describe something outside their experience, and end up speaking in a kind of gentle poetry. My favourite is when chief nimrod Za (Derek Newark) realises he needs more information and says, “I must hear more things to remember.”

This quest for knowledge is one of the story’s themes. It’s Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) and Ian’s (William Russell) curiosity which draws them to the TARDIS in the first place, following unearthly student Susan (Carole Ann Ford) home one night, only to discover that she’s living in a police box and there’s a grumpy old Doctor (William Hartnell) is hanging around suspiciously. Once sprung, the Doctor wants to protect the secrets of his technology, which he sees as the key to his and Susan’s safety.  It’s so important to him to preserve this knowledge, that he takes off with the teachers on board. In the other, more hairy tribe, Za and rival Kal (Jeremy Young) are in a race to acquire knowledge of fire making, because with that knowledge comes leadership. As Za says, “the leader would have things to remember.”

The struggle for the position of alpha male happens in both tribes but the one between Za and Kal is a basic contest for dominance. The one between the Doctor and Ian is more interesting. Both can’t help but squabble with each other about the way out of their predicament. Ian is rightly suspicious of this haughty, dismissive alien, and the Doctor views Ian as as primitive and uncultured as any caveman. They eventually reach a detente through recognising the other’s skills, but it’s trickier than a simple development of mutual respect. There’s much more strategy going on.

Take, for instance, when the Doctor saves Ian’s life in the second episode. There’s a scrap with the cave folk and Ian’s about to get a stone axe to the head. Just in time the Doctor bellows, “If he dies, there will be no fire.” It’s easy to see this as an early indication of the Doctor’s true, underlying character, but I think it’s far more pragmatic than that. The Doctor quickly realises that in order for him and Susan to escape this situation, he will need Ian’s physical strength. He admits as much in the next episode.

Similarly, after sparring over the best way to order themselves on their first escape attempt from the tribe, Ian eventually appears to concede the Doctor’s leadership role. It’s in the fourth episode, when the Doctor has tricked Kal into revealing himself as the Old Woman’s (Eileen Way) killer, thus turning the tribe against him. Apparently impressed by the Doctor’s quick thinking, Ian agrees that the Doctor is their leader. But I don’t think he’s given up so soon. Surely Ian’s just thinking that if they ever get back to the Ship, he and Barbara need the Doctor to let them on board again and to attempt to get them home. As Rose once said, you don’t argue with the designated driver.

Naturally enough for 60s Who heroines, Barbara is never in the running for leadership position. But she does operate as the TARDIS’ crew’s conscience. In the third episode, she’s the one who can’t leave Za to perish (he’s been mauled by a vicious jungle beast, sensibly kept off camera). She’s almost hysterical with fear just before this happens, so her decision to give up the dash back to the TARDIS to help their pursuer is initially seen, certainly by the Doctor, as an act of madness. Her act of compassion seems to have been futile; it buys them no particular favour from Za who incarcerates them again as soon as they’re back at the cave. But Hur (Althea Charlton) seems particularly fascinated by this act of kindness, so there’s the sense that the tribe might also end up learning the importance of compassion from our heroes, chiefly Barbara. Add this to the idea of collective action – that no one person is stronger than the whole tribe – and Za has a whole heap of things to remember, including some new socialist ideals.

Barbara’s desire to help people might have an impact on the tribe, but it’s lost on the Doctor. He’s famously callous in these early episodes in a way which we’ll never see again. It’s not just the famous moment where it looks like he might kill the injured Za in order to escape. Also in that sequence, he seems prepared to abandon Barbara and Ian to help the caveman, while he and Susan run to the TARDIS. And any chance that he might have been learning some kindness from these earthly teachers is dashed in the last episode. That’s when Barbara stumbles and falls on the final run to the TARDIS and the Doctor, tellingly, runs straight over the top of her.

I suppose, to be generous, he might just be in shock. He and his companions have been held in particularly gruesome conditions. They’re kept in that cave of skulls, even though the decomposing corpse of the Old Woman is in there too. Perhaps even worse is that the four of them are forced to watch the final, brutal fight where Za beats Kal to death, eventually smashing his head in with a rock. It’s then you realise how bleak this story is; never again will the show depict one man savagely killing another with his bare hands, no matter how cartoony the circumstances.

It ends up, as most Doctor Who stories do, as a peculiar but fascinating mix. On one hand, it’s startlingly grim – I just can’t imagine the show lasting long if it had kept putting its heroes through bloody ordeals like this week after week. On the other, with its almost lyrical caveman dialogue, it never loses the sense of the unreal. In some ways it’s very sophisticated; it takes the show’s educational remit and uses it both literally (this is how you start a fire, kids!) and also uses education as a theme. In other ways, it’s hammy and repetitive.

Whichever order we watch Doctor Who in, we always come back to 100,000 BC, in an attempt to try and uncover where the show came from. But it will never work – at least not entirely – because in its unique mix of poetry, tutorage and brutality, there’s never been another story like this first one.

LINK TO… The Invisible Enemy. Both feature the work of designer Barry Newbery.

NEXT TIME… Are we in Scotland? It’s time to go Tooth and Claw. But before that… a random extra: a look at the pilot episode.

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Dates, fates and Boom Town (2005)

boomtown

In much the same way that 21st century Doctor Who used to have celebrity historicals, it also used to have “bottle shows”. As Russell T Davies explained in The Shooting Scripts, the bottle show is the cheap episode in a season. One of the side effects of having fewer episodes per season is that the budget seems better spread across each episode. If there’s a bottle show in series 9 and 10, it’s not immediately apparent.

Certainly not in the way that it’s apparent in Boom Town, the eleventh episode of the first series of Doctor Who’s modern run. Watching it again for the first time in yonks, I was struck by just how low-budget it looks. Davies claims that he wanted to show off Cardiff in this episode, in order to thank the city and its people for hosting the show, but sticking close to home is also the cheapest way to shoot something. Not for Boom Town exotic alien spaceships, CGI monsters or the London blitz brought to life. It’s a drama played out in council offices, restaurants and public squares.

On paper, it doesn’t sound like a setting guaranteed to captivate an audience. But Davies spots the opportunity to use those mundane backdrops in a story of interpersonal drama. The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, pitch perfect) and Blon Fel Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen, AKA Margaret (Annette Badlands, equally pitch perfect) spend the episode sparring verbally, as the Doctor prepares to pack her off for execution by her own kind. And as Davies has said, with two actors of this calibre, that’s all you need.

To save Cardiff from a catastrophic nuclear explosion, the Doctor must return Margaret to her home planet, where she faces fatal retribution. To save herself, Margaret must convince the Doctor to spare her.

In its understated way, Boom Town positions the Doctor in a stark new light; for once, he has a prisoner, who is begging him for her life. And despite the fact that Margaret is sly and treacherous throughout –  it turns out, she has engineered the whole sitation – her appeals are enough to give the Doctor (and the audience) pause for thought. This episode remains the one which most keenly questions the Doctor’s levels of mercy.

The crucial moment in the episode is when Margaret pleads that she’s capable of compassion, arguing that only that afternoon, she refrained from killing a pregnant woman. The Doctor’s response is shrewd but reveals more about him that he intended.

DOCTOR: You let one of them go, but that’s nothing new. Every now and then, a little victim’s spared because she smiled, because he’s got freckles, because they begged. And that’s how you live with yourself. That’s how you slaughter millions. Because once in a while, on a whim, if the wind’s in the right direction, you happen to be kind.

MARGARET: Only a killer would know that.

The point Margaret makes is telling because she’s not relying on the mercy of a pure heart. The mercy of a killer is surely harder to secure than that of a simpler hero. Earlier in this same season, we saw the Doctor coldly watch as Cassandra was ripped apart, making no effort to save her, passing judgement on her for her crimes. So we know he’s prepared to draw a distinction between good and bad, and he won’t shy away from capital punishment, as long as he’s given the villain a chance to give up the game. For a person who is such a defender of life, he’s prepared to take other lives in that defence.

That’s an inherent contradiction in the Doctor that long term viewers are familiar with. The question that Boom Town poses is, will the Doctor relent and show Margaret the mercy he didn’t show Cassandra?

*****

While all this is going on, Rose (Billie Piper) is also on an awkward date. She’s summoned Mickey (Noel Clarke) to Cardiff to bring her passport, but it’s a ruse; she just wants to see him again. So they head off into the night to paint the town Welsh red. Not that I’ve ever been to Cardiff, so I shouldn’t really slag it off, but I notice this doesn’t take long and so they end up aimlessly wandering the streets, presumably looking for an open kebab van.

During all the time they spend eluding Cardiff’s nightlife, they recap on the state of their relationship. Initially, it looks like they might sneak away for a dirty overnighter, which would have been an unexpected innovation for the new series (they should watch out, though. We know what happens Doctor Who characters who sneak off for a quick shag.) But then it transpires that Mickey has hooked up with another girl next door and Rose isn’t at all pleased.

There’s a surprising amount of screen time devoted to these scenes; much more than would be given over to similar domestic drama these days. I mean, Amy Pond lost her baby in fewer scenes than this. But we never get to a resolution because soon enough the city is being torn asunder and Rose is racing back to the Doctor’s side. Mickey presumably has to go find a hotel on his own, which will be much less fun.

On the face of it, there’s not much linking the Rose/Mickey story and the Doctor/Margaret story. But if there is, perhaps it’s this: the whiff of sexism. It’s the women who are the instigators of trouble here. Rose and Margaret are the schemers, manipulating the men around them, hoping to have their cakes and eat them too. Neither of them get to do so, of course, but still, the impression is that the women are the ones playing the men.

We never get to find out if the Doctor would spare Margaret’s life. Without warning or explanation, a panel of the TARDIS console flips open and a white light turns her into an egg. She gets to live her life again, a second chance that Rose wants too; another admission that it’s the women of this piece who have sins to atone for.

But more to the point, the Doctor is spared facing the moral dilemma he’s been contemplating all episode. Like the much promised big explosion which never actually happens, so the question of how much mercy the Doctor has never gets answered. The boom fails to go off in Boom Town. Twice.

Still, worst off in this episode is Jack (John Barrowman), who spends most of it in the TARDIS fiddling with wires. If only he’d known his future Torchwood self was outside somewhere in Cardiff, standing precariously on buildings or wiping people’s memories, he could have found and hooked up with himself. Taken poor Mickey’s empty hotel room for a bit. You know he would have. Hopefully, he would have bought himself a drink first. If he could find somewhere open in Cardiff, of course.

LINK TO Smile: In both, the Doctor sits down for a meal.

NEXT TIME: I never will be able to find the words. But I’ll give it a shot anyway with World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls.

 

Celebrity, history and The Unquiet Dead (2005)

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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

 

 

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.

Eccleston, explanations and The End of the World (2005)

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There’s something about rewatching Christopher Eccleston’s episodes of Doctor Who which takes me right back to 2005. No other series of the show has so potent a transporting effect. I think, as I’ve alluded to before, watching the show be so successfully revived in 2005 was a unique thrill. It was a great time to be a fan. It was a time for rejoicing.

But just before the broadcast of the second new series episode, The End of the World, we got our first sense of there being trouble in paradise. The BBC announced that Eccleston would be leaving the series after its first year. Then it was revealed that the BBC’s statement was falsely attributed to Eccleston, and that they had broken an agreement to stay quiet on the length of his tenure. All in all, it seemed that this happy show had an unhappy leading man.

Ever since then, and to this day, there has been speculation about why Eccleston left. He doesn’t say much about it, but when promoting the many other projects he’s tackled post-Who, he inevitably gets asked about it. What he does say is short, guarded but tantalizing. He didn’t see eye to eye with the production team. He didn’t like the culture of the show. He didn’t like the way cast and crew were treated. And most recently he gave the clearest indication yet of the internal conflict which lead to his departure. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 with Emma Freud he said:

“Myself and three individuals at the very top of the pyramid clashed, so off I went. But they are are not here to say their side of it, so I’m not going to go into details.”

Whatever the circumstances, it’s easy to sympathise with Eccleston. Many of us have had difficult, unpleasant or simply bad jobs which we’ve left which various degrees of acrimony. Few of us will be asked time and time again about the circumstances of those jobs years after we’ve left them. Even fewer of us will have to do so in public fora. And Eccleston probably wants to talk about his more recent work and leave the past behind. Sadly, public interest in Doctor Who just isn’t going to let him.

Doctor Who fans are used to reticence from some of those who worked to the show to discuss it publicly. Tom Baker, Janet Fielding, Paul McGann and Peter Purves were among those who had long periods where they wouldn’t talk about the show. Script editors Andrew Cartmel and Eric Saward stayed similarly quiet for a long time. Eventually, they relented and opened up about their time on the show, often addressing the difficult circumstances which prevented them from talking freely about it before.

And for long term fans, Eccleston’s silence may feel like one of these temporary hiatuses, which will hopefully end one day and he’ll embrace discussing the show. It may not, but it seems to me like he’s going to be dogged by questions about his departure at every launch and talk and press conference until he opens up more fully. Seeking out an interviewer with a sober, balanced approach – probably from Doctor Who Magazine, I suspect – and telling his story in a controlled manner, may well be the only way to stem the tide.

Also on BBC 4, he said:

“I think I over pitched the comedy. If I had my time again I would do the comedy very differently. But I think, where I possibly succeeded was in the tortured stuff.”

I agree with him about “the tortured stuff”. He’s famous for it, he could be tortured for England. Of course he’s going to do that well. But I think the lighter side of his Doctor is also on display and Eccleston manages these nicely. In The End of the World, there’s the moment where he gives the various alien thrillseekers gathered to watch Earth’s fiery demise the gift of air from his lungs. There’s also when he grooves out to Soft Cell and when he warns Rose about the size of her phone bill. I’d say when he gets a comic moment to play, he plays it adeptly.

And throughout this first year, he’ll find various opportunities to crack that goofy grin and go for the laugh. Personally I’ve always liked the ‘passing the port’ routine in World War Three. And he’s funny chasing down Margaret Slitheen in Boom Town. And, as might be expected in a Steven Moffat script, he gets plenty of smart one liners in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. If he’s not as fed as many of these funny moments, it could be that the Doctor’s angst is one of this season’s key themes. What would have happened, I wonder, if he’d stayed for another year? Might there have been more of a chance to build on his Doctor’s sense of humour?

For me though, it’s not the mix of comedy and gravitas which makes the ninth Doctor stand out. All the Doctors have those qualities to various extents. What marks Eccleston’s Doctor as unique is his variation from the Doctorly norm. Think of the Doctors who followed him, Tennant and Smith. Each are much more traditionally Doctorly: charming, witty, leisurely charismatic. Eccleston though is the very opposite of frock coated familiarity. His leather jacket, short cropped hair, Northern accented Doctor feels like something new and dangerous. He fits no standard Doctorly type. He talks and dresses like a human but his opinions and reactions are alien. He’s like no Doctor before or since.

It’s this uniqueness which leaves us wanting more than one season of this Doctor, not how he played the comedy or the drama. And it’s also why we’d love to know more about why Eccleston didn’t want to stay on our favourite show. Us fans, we’re like nervous hosts and Doctor Who is like a grand house party we’re throwing. We hate to think anyone’s not having a good time, let alone our a-list guests.

“Everything has its time and everything dies,” the Doctor says in this episode. This proves as true for this incarnation as for the stretched canvas which is Lady Cassandra (Zoe Wanamaker) or for the doomed Earth itself. One day perhaps, Eccleston might tell us why.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: The Adherents of the Repeated Meme and renamed “the Adherents of the Repeated Mean”. Which makes no sense of course when the Doctor says a repeated meme is just an idea. And the Moxx of Balhoon’s Bad Wolf scenario becomes a ‘bad move scenario’. Which, given this phrase’s importance in Series One, is unfortunate.

SACRIFICIAL BLAM! Or rather burn, when Jabe the Tree (Yasmin Bannerman) catches light.

LINK to Black Orchid. Both feature “Ladies”: Cranleigh and Cassandra.

NEXT TIME… Don’t turn your back, don’t look away and don’t Blink.

The 80s, media and The Long Game (2005)

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So, let’s go back to the Doctor Who production office, late 1980s. Script editor Andrew Cartmel is looking for new writers who can breathe new life into a show now a quarter of a century old. He picks up a script from the slush pile by some newcomer called Russell T Davies. That script is original version of The Long Game.

It eventually got to the screen in 2005. I remember watching it for the first time and being reminded of the late 1980s. This is a story which feels like it could slip in to seasons 24 or 25. And I’ve seen that sentiment expressed elsewhere too. Looking at this story again got me asking myself why exactly.

There are specific story elements which have been copied across. Like Paradise Towers, this story features a many storeyed structure, accessed by a lift. Both stories feature characters trying to get to the highest floor. On floor 139, there’s a busy space-age market complete with junk food ala Dragonfire.  Floor 500 feels a bit like Dragonfire too, where a sinister man runs a business in a refrigerated environment, employing zombies to do his work. And back to Paradise Towers, that man turns out to be the slave of a growling, inarticulate beast permanently installed in the infrastructure. That beast is a pink, fleshy, organic lump, like the oversized brain in Time and the Rani.

Thematically though, this is allegory and social commentary, presented through a society which although highly stylised is a twisted version of our own. To that end, it’s reminiscent of The Happiness Patrol, a critique of Thatcherism as potent as The Long Game‘s critique of broadcast media. Any doubt that writer Russell T Davies was specifically parodying Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp empire is dispelled when the Editor (Simon Pegg) looks straight down the camera. And says ‘Gotcha!’, a clear reference to The Sun’s infamous headline used during the Falklands war.

The baleful influence of Satellite 5, The Long Game tells us, is that it holds humanity back, stunting its growth. This is presumably the threat Davies sees NewsCorp and its ilk representing. ‘We are the news,’ says journalist Cathica (Christine Adams), succinctly expressing the element of  media control this story fears; an populace dependent on one source for its information is open to manipulation.

It’s a common fear. But watching it these days, in the wake of the Milly Dowler affair, there are elements which seem oddly prescient. The episode’s most visceral image is of a stream of compressed information being fed directly into people’s brains, exposed to the outside world by a dinky automated hatch. There’s something about that image which speaks of the invasion of privacy experienced by victims of NewsCorp’s phone hacking; access to secrets and the most private of thoughts, just a brain spike or a phone call away.

It’s the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston, midway through his annus Doctoralis) who recognises that the Fourth Great and Bountiful Human Empire is being held back. ‘This technology’s wrong,’ he says. ‘You’ve got a door in your head!’ But here we strike one of the story’s problems.

This future world is 90 years behind where it should be, and that’s a gap which is difficult for the audience to grasp. To all intents and purposes this looks like a miraculous futuristic world, where brain surgery takes minutes and humans interface directly with computers. How can we tell the difference between this amazing world, and what it’s meant to be like with 90 years’ more development? Perhaps we needed a snippet more dialogue, to illustrate the point:

ROSE: Oh I get it. Like if we went back home and everyone was walking around like it was 1915. Telegrams instead of text messages. Carriages not cars.

Except, you know, heaps better and written by RTD.

Anyway, back to the 80’s. Whether it was a conscious decision or not I don’t know, but the design work has a particularly 80s flair to it. Primary colours, reds and blues dominate the colour palette. Rose’s smart red zippy jacket isn’t that far away from something Bonnie Langford might have worn in season 24. And elsewhere it’s power suits and elaborate hair… It just has a bit if that 80s glitz going on. A few synth crashes in the soundtrack wouldn’t have been out of place.   Evoking, lord help us, the plasticy sounds of Keff McCulloch.

Then we have boy genius Adam (Bruno Langley) who turns out to be such a disappointment to us all. He starts off as a potential rival to the Doctor for Rose’s affections, but he faints at the first sight of a green screened star scape, so Rose knows instantly he’s not cut out for 13 episodes of this a year. He brings back memories of that other boy companion of the 80s whose name starts with Ad and who came to a similarly undistinguished end.

But to his good fortune, he gets a number of brilliant scenes with Tamsin Grieg’s deliciously arch Nurse. (It’s a little odd to think that this fairly unremarked upon episode has two such awesome comic talents in Grieg and Pegg in it. Both warrant return appearances in new roles.) She turns from pained administrative fatigue to flirty temptress at the sight of Adam’s shiny money rod. She slyly upsells the poor hopeless lad to the premier option with a playful flick of her finger. Adam has no chance against her. Looking for an extra companion, Doctor? She’s the one you want.

There’s another pretty strong link to the 80s and that’s through one off (so far) director Brian Grant. Grant, it turns out, directed some of the most iconic 80s pop videos. Kids in America, Physical, Private Dancer… The list goes on. Who better to direct this tribute to classic Doctor Who‘s final years? And if the much mooted musical episode of Doctor Who ever gets off the ground, then surely it’s time to get Grant back. Doctor Who via Duran Duran and Donna Summer. C’mon, you’d watch that. Who wouldn’t?

Back in the Doctor Who production office in the late 80s, Cartmel sends Davies’ script back with a ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Apparently, he recommends writing something about mortgages; we can be thankful RTD ignored that advice. But it just goes to show that a good idea is worth hanging on to and nearly twenty years later this product of the 80s makes it to screen. Now that’s a long game.

LINK to Galaxy 4. Both feature hideous, immobile alien creatures which are more than they seem.

NEXT TIME… How can I go to the Admiralty with a story like that? We see devils in The Sea Devils.