Tag Archives: series 2

Retconning, retreading and Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (2006)

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In new Who’s opening year, Russell T Davies brought back the Daleks and in doing so, set the format for reintroducing an old monster from the classic series. He brought them back by giving new viewers just enough back story, but without wildly contradicting their history from the classic days. And that’s the way most old monsters have been brought back into the show: Sontarans, Zygons, Ice Warriors and so on.

The exception is the Cybermen. In their return appearance, Series 2’s Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, Davies and writer Tom MacRae retcon the big silver fellas, creating them a whole new backstory, in the continuity safe space of an alternative universe. In the classic series, Cybermen were our alien cousins, who had turned themselves into synthetic horrors and were intent on making us like them. Here, they are not just related to us, they are us. Borne of our own obsession with technology, these homegrown version Cybermen position themselves as just the latest in a long line of habitual upgrades.

Truth be told, it’s a better origin story than the one originally presented back in 1966. The Cyber threat is much closer to home in the version presented here; the society of Pete’s World doesn’t feel that different to our own, so it’s not that hard to imagine our own wearable technology turning against us. And if we’re worried about dissing the show’s heritage, it’s not like classic era Doctor Who ever shied away from rewriting established history. The Daleks have two origin stories. Time Lord history got rewritten.

But the Rise of the Cybermen etc doesn’t just want to rewrite continuity (and it doesn’t stick anyway. We eventually meet different Cybermen from our universe and no-one can be bothered explaining their backstory). It also wants to recreate the show’s own history. And in doing so, it gives us a peek into a very different approach to new Who which was never taken.

***

One of Doctor Who’s ancient, mysterious artifacts is the Leekley Bible. It was a guiding document for a potential new series of Doctor Who, which was being planned by Amblin Universal in the 1990s. Written by John Leekley, it detailed a backstory for the series which, depending on your point of view, was either a mangled misremembering of key moments from the classic series, or an innovative new take established Who lore. This summary from Tardis Wikia is indicative: A ruggedly handsome young Time Lord named the Doctor discovers that he is the long-lost son of the great explorer Ulysses, but not before the Master becomes the Lord President of Gallifrey. The Doctor must travel with the spirit of Borusa (who can only exist inside the “Time-crystals” that power the Tardis) and find his long lost father to restore the balance of peace across the universe. Yup, it’s unique.

Anyway, the Leekley bible goes on to suggest the type of stories which a new series of Doctor Who could include and rather than invent brand new ones, it suggests recycling plot lines from years past. It proposes remaking classic stories like The Ark in Space, The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Gunfighters among many others. All of them have gone through the Leekley reassembling machine, so have similarly tampered emphases as the series premise noted above: think The Daemons but during the Salem witch trials, The Talons of Weng-Chiang but in NYC. Who knows whether a full Amblin series would have taken up these suggestions, or created new storylines or mixed them together. But the point is that a valid approach to new Who could have been to simply remake old Who. After all, there are 26 years of it to mine.

All this is relevant because Rise of the Cybermen is basically The Invasion. It’s the story of a power mad tech millionaire, who embarks on a plan to take over the world, using his company’s ubiquitous consumer technology and turn everyone into Cybermen. It even reuses the name International Electromatics from the earlier story. The Cybermen are eventually defeated by being flooded with emotions. Sure there are differences, but I suspect about the same level as we might find in a Leekley version of The Sea Devils set on a Louisiana oil rig. Looked at through this lens, Rise of the Cybermen is, appropriately enough, a view into an alternative universe, where all new Doctor Who was made from reappropriating old Doctor Who.*

In one sense, constructing a series out of cover versions of previous stories would have been a difficult approach for the show to take, playing havoc with the show’s long term continuity (not that that has ever been sacrosanct). And probably in the long run, it would have only demonstrated a lack of originality which wouldn’t have served the series well. But it might have been a way of breathing life into stories which otherwise would only be watched by tragics like you and me. If not a full series, perhaps it could have led to a mini-series of specials based on the old series’ greatest hits. (Though perhaps, with animated adaptations of missing stories like The Macra Terror making increasingly bold editorial choices, it’s already happening in its own way.)

But you know what? I don’t really need to hear the greatest hits again. It’s like all those Hollywood remakes of films which were perfectly fine the first time around. Why don’t they remake bad films and make them good? Because I don’t want talented writers like Davies or Moffat rewriting Pyramids of Mars. But I would absolutely watch them make classics of Arc of Infinity or The Time Monster. Those would be challenges worthy of their skills.

***

I’ve managed to avoid talking about the actual story again. Long term readers will not be surprised; I do this sometimes. It’s not that I don’t like Rise of the Cybermen etc. I like it quite a lot. Just as I like The Invasion. And Inferno. And Genesis of the Daleks. And The Dalek Invasion of Earth. And Father’s Day. It’s well performed and well directed and as familiar as a comfortable pair of slippers and…

Oh yeah. Maybe that’s why we don’t just recycle old stories all the time. Don’t call us, Leekley.

LINK TO Resolution: Difficult companion/Dad relationships in both.

NEXT TIME: What the hell? Let’s Kill Hitler.

*(And yes, another piece of early source material for this story was the Big Finish drama Spare Parts but in its final form, there’s not much similarity between the two.)

Rose, Reinette and The Girl in the Fireplace (2006)

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You can tell a Steven Moffat script. The writing is full of clever ripostes and zingy one-liners, delivered at just the right moment, with just the right amount of sardonic wit. But my favourite line of dialogue from (the thankfully less grisly than it sounds) The Girl in the Fireplace is much simpler and more functional. It’s this:

ROSE: Why her?

That line comes in the middle of a standard mid-episode exposition scene, albeit in an episode with a more complex premise than most. The Doctor (David Tennant), Rose (Billie Piper) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) have discovered a spaceship in the far future, linked to a number of times and places in 18th century France. Present in each of these locations is Reinette, AKA Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles), at different stages in her life, and a cohort of clockwork androids are crossing from future to past to monitor her.

In this scene, our TARDIS crew and Reinette have cornered one of the robots and are interrogating it on what’s going on. They’ve found out that the robots have cannibalised the ship’s crew for parts (still 21st century Who’s most gruesome plot development) to repair the immobilised spaceship, and they want Reinette for a mysterious, but crucial, final component.

The pivotal question is why, out of all the people in history, do the robots want Reinette? The question must be asked, but think about Moffat’s choices about which character should give voice to it. He could give it to the Doctor, but he’s already carrying the bulk of this scene. He could choose Reinette and change the question to “why me?” It would be a perfectly understandable question for her character to ask.

Instead, he gives it to Rose. And in a moment which shows what a smart and subtle actor she is, Billie Piper manages to drench those two words with subtext. Yes, she wants to know what the robots find so fascinating about Reinette, but she’s really asking why this fascination has spread to the Doctor, whose romantic interest the girl in the fireplace has piqued. Why her, she’s asking, and not me?

*****

Moffat has said that this episode is “the one where Doctor Who gets a girlfriend”. Which cheerfully ignores the fact that he already has a girlfriend in Rose. But then the Doctor and Rose have never been what we might call “official”.

Truth is, Rose never knows where she stands with the Doctor. Yes, she’s snogged him but both times were under extraordinary sci-fi infused circumstances: once he drew a bundle of time energy out of her to save her life (via her lips) and the other time she was possessed by a notorious vamp (and not responsible for the actions of her lips). No commitment has been made by either party. Which is where the romantic insecurity sets in. Mickey teases her about it this episode when listing possible suitors for the Doctor in Sarah Jane Smith, Cleopatra and now, Madame De Pompadour.

None of which would matter if Rose felt secure in her relationship with the Doctor, but she’s always played it pretty casually too. She’s kept Mickey on the hook for long enough, keeping her options open. So she doesn’t really have cause to complain when the Doctor takes up with Reinette in record speed. But it obviously bugs her. It’s pretty clear throughout this episode that Rose is thinking, “what if he invites her to come with us? Or what if he decides to stay with her?”

Why the Doctor is suddenly so taken with Reinette is more difficult to work out. Sure, she’s a beautiful woman (probably) but the Doctor’s hung out with plenty of them before and never hooked up so quickly (that wild New Year’s Eve back in 1996 excepted). It’s tempting to think that he’s just so unused to romantic relationships that he’ll latch on to any girl who’s deigned to kiss him.

To be fair, Reinette is remarkably smart, capable and unafraid to take what she wants. He’s not just fascinated by her, but by the mystery of why this troop of ticking androids wants to plug her into their spaceship. (Here we see one of Moffat’s favourite plot lines beginning; a woman as an intriguing puzzle for the Doctor to solve.) Sure, Rose is the girl next door, but Reinette’s an enigma wrapped in a ball gown.

If the Doctor’s aware that he’s causing Rose consternation, he certainly doesn’t show it. Can he really be so blind to her feelings? Doesn’t he know that they’re quasi boyfriend and girlfriend? He’s clearly no stranger to romantic jealousy. Look at how snarkily he tells Louis (Ben Turner) that a lord of time trumps a king of France.

I think it’s more likely that with Rose’s determination to keep her options open with Mickey, the Doctor’s assumed that this whatever-it-is with her is not necessarily going to be monogamous. Sadly, we never got a serious suitor for Rose to find out whether he’d react in the same way (Captain Jack kinda made him jealous for a bit but I’m not really sure that counts. Given that he turns out to be turned on by just about everyone he meets).

It’s sometimes pointed out that the Tennant Doctor and Rose don’t treat other people very well, so ensconced are they in their bubble of love. But The Girl in the Fireplace shows that occasionally, they also don’t treat each other very well. It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the Doctor heads off to “dance” with Reinette mid-episode, with no thought as to how this might make Rose feel. Cheating on his girlfriend with his new girlfriend. The Doctor as a cad – that’s something genuinely new.

Rose and Reinette end up representing the two types of woman our 21st century Doctor, with his new interest in romance, will end up flirting with over the next few years. On one hand, you have the sassy girl next door types: Rose, Amy, Clara and Martha. On the other, you have mythic, powerful, uber women: Reinette, River Song, Tasha Lem, Queens Elizabeth and Nefertiti. Both are idealised feminine archetypes, though at opposite ends of a spectrum of hetero male fantasies. It would be interesting to see the Doctor fall for someone who sits more realistically between these two ideals.

*****

I have a favourite shot in The Girl in the Fireplace, to go along with my favourite line. It’s the final one where we at last find out why the clockwork robots are as fascinated in Reinette as the Doctor is. As it turns out, the answer to Rose’s question was there all the time, obscured by a particularly unfortunate piece of TARDIS parking.

Why her? Well, the ship is named after Madame De Pompadour. In using the very last moments of his story to put the last of its jigsaw puzzle pieces in place, Moffat underlines that the big events of our lives – who you fall in love with, who falls in love with you – depend to a large extent on coincidence and will always remain, at least in part, a mystery.

LINK TO The Woman Who Lived: Both titles refer to mysterious female guest stars.

NEXT TIME: Family history and time travel? Very tricky. Break out the shop bought cake for Demons of the Punjab.

Albert, George and Tooth and Claw (2006)

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PRINCE ALBERT: Ah, Sir George. Absolutely wunderbah to see you again!

SIR GEORGE MacLEISH: Your Highness… (out of breath) ah… ah… you honour us with your presence… (wheeze) … yet again.

ALBERT: But my dear fellow, why are you so exhausted? Whatever have you been doing?

GEORGE: I’ve just finished… varnishing all the doors… and walls…

ALBERT: Oh that’s right.

GEORGE: With mistletoe oil.

ALBERT: I wondered what that smell was.

GEORGE: At your command.

ALBERT: And the wood carvings?

GEORGE: All done, your highness. Every door.

ALBERT: And the light chamber?

GEORGE: Installed in the observatory. It was right bugger getting that up the stairs.

ALBERT: But you’ve made sure it looks like…

GEORGE: Yes, your highness, it looks just like a telescope.

ALBERT: Very important that no one suspects its true purpose!

GEORGE: Only thing is… it only pivots along one arc.

ALBERT: So?

GEORGE: Well, we’re trying to capture the light of the full moon, right? But with the scope of the thing fixed along one arc, we have to wait until the moon is in exactly the right space, and that will only happen at specific times. If the moon’s not in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment, we’re stuffed.

ALBERT: You worry too much, Sir George. Though your language is charmingly rustic!

GEORGE: The thing is, your highness, the whole plan’s a bit like that.

ALBERT: Brilliantly ingenious, you mean?

GEORGE: No, I mean dependent on dangerously unlikely coincidences. Take the diamond, for example. You’re busy getting it cut to exactly the right design to reflect and focus the moonlight.

ALBERT: And when I’m gone, the Queen will take it to Helier and Carew, the royal jewellers at Hazlehead. Every year! To be recut! I won’t bother telling her this of course, but she’s a remarkable woman, she’ll work it out.

GEORGE: But how will the jewellers know when to stop? Cut too much away and presumably the diamond won’t work.

ALBERT: Well… I will take them into my confidence and explain what we’re doing so they know what’s going on.

GEORGE: Me first, please. And anyway, giving the Queen a pilgrimage to Hazlehead via my house just puts her in jeopardy. Annually. Why not just tell her to stay away from the place?

ALBERT: But that’s the whole point, Sir George. We’re going to kill the beast with the Koh-i-noor and the Koh-i-noor is always with the Queen.

GEORGE: Thereby putting her at maximum risk. I don’t know why I’m worried, though, because it’s probably never going to happen.

ALBERT: I don’t see why not.

GEORGE: Think about it, your highness. For a start, the Queen has to be travelling to Hazlehead and plan to stop at my house on a night with a full moon. And not just any full moon, but one which traverses the arc covered by the light chamber disguised as a telescope. Then she’ll have to find her way into the library, to research the nature of the wolf, and deduce that she needs to lead it to the observatory and have the diamond with her.

ALBERT: I think that sounds perfectly plausible!

GEORGE: So then the Queen, the wolf and the diamond all have to be in the observatory at exactly the right time. The light chamber has to be pointing at exactly the right spot at the sky and at precisely the right moment, the Queen has to place the diamond on exactly the right spot on the floor, at the right orientation, to produce the deadly moonlight ray. Even then, the wolf has to be standing in exactly the right spot for the beam to hit it.

And here’s another thing: we don’t even know it’s going to work. We’re just assuming that concentrated moonlight is going to kill the creature. It’s completely untested and if it doesn’t work, you’ll have left the Queen in a room with a werewolf, with only a finely cut diamond and a pretend telescope with which to defend herself.

ALBERT: Well, I don’t see any alternative.

GEORGE: Really?

ALBERT: If we don’t do this, what other possible plan could there be?

GEORGE:

ALBERT: Well, what?

GEORGE: We TELL someone, your highness! We tell the Queen, or the military or basically anyone so they know what we’re trying to do!

ALBERT: You dummkopf! No one would ever believe us.

GEORGE: You’re the Prince Consort, your highness. You could tell them we’re building a staircase to Mars and they’d have to do it.

ALBERT: Staircase to Mars, you say…

GEORGE: Your highness, please let’s focus on one thing at a time. Let’s tell someone what we’re doing. Someone with more weapons and resources and strategic skill than just the royal jewellers at Hazlehead. Or let’s tell the Queen, and she can order the army to do all this while she stays at home safe and sound. At least let’s write down our plan, so someone might one day find it and understand it…

ALBERT: Enough, Sir George! You worry too much. It will all come together in some pleasingly convenient way. No doubt, something will just drop out of the sky, and tie all these various elements into a coherent whole. The plan will work perfectly and the beast will be slain.

GEORGE: We could just go now, and find the wolf and…

ALBERT: Uh uh.

GEORGE: Or, we could put out some poisoned baits…

ALBERT: Now George, don’t worry about it. It will all be fine.

GEORGE: Sure. As long as clouds down obscure the moon at the crucial moment.

ALBERT: Forget the plan, you beautiful idiot! Haven’t you worked it out yet?

GEORGE: Worked what out?

ALBERT: All these late night conversations? All these trips to Scotland? It’s all a cover! An elaborate ruse so that we can be together!

GEORGE: It’s a what now?

ALBERT: Kiss me, you fool!

GEORGE: Oh.

 

LINK TO 100,000 BC: Hairy beasts!

NEXT TIME: we embark on a Mission to the Unknown… and one other random episode to go with it.

Domesticity, sentimentality and Fear Her (2006)

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One of the earliest things we learned about the Doctor upon his 21st century return was that he “doesn’t do domestic.” But oddly enough, by the time he got to his second series, he was breaking his own rule fairly regularly. In both The Idiot’s Lantern and Fear Her, we find him and Rose (David Tennant and Billie Piper, at their most smug and loved up) making home visits and confronting the results of family violence.

When talking about The Idiot’s Lantern, I was concerned that this is too raw subject matter for the show to deal with. Fear Her goes there again, but this time uses it as the thematic base of the story. By which I mean, The Idiot’s Lantern featured a family fractured by an abusive father, but that plot element was not connected to its main plot about a monster sucking people into TVs.

Fear Her features a similarly fractured family and a child dealing with the aftermath of abuse from her father. But here, the plot about the alien Isolus, isolated from its own kind, scared of being alone, recovering from a traumatic event and needing love to heal itself, mirrors the situation of its host, Chloe (Abisola Agbaje).

Tales of spooky children abound in 21st century Who and in sci-fi and horror more generally. But this story is clearly riffing off Chocky, the terrifically unsettling novella by John Wyndham, turned into an equally unsettling TV series by 70s Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read. In both of those, a young boy, Matthew, has his mind infiltrated by an alien intelligence, wanting to form an emotional link. (Interestingly, in the TV version, the boy’s artistic abilities massively improve, and drawing becomes his means of self expression). As in Fear Her, the boy’s parents are worried and bewildered.

In Chocky, the threat to Matthew is external; government forces want to capture and harness the alien within him. The threat to Chloe is created from within her – a simulacrum of her vengeful Dad, hiding in the closet within her bedroom. Much of Fear Her is set in that bedroom, and that’s significant because bedrooms are places of sanctuary and safety, where imagined worlds are created. That’s the Isolus’s power too. It creates worlds to retreat into and play, but Chloe’s world is full of fear and guilt and that’s what creates her monster, which starts off as purely internalised but threatens to emerge into the real world.

As twee as it may seem, the ending where mother and daughter sing Kookaburra sits in the Old Gum Tree to neutralise the emerging father demon works within the theme of families recovering from trauma. The solution to Chloe’s problem is for Mum Trish (Nina Sosanya) to acknowledge and engage with her daughter’s pain. As with the Isolus, Chloe’s reunited with her family. Doctor Who fans don’t always like it when the series wades into the waters of family drama. But at least in Fear Her, plot, theme, genre and character sync satisfyingly together.

Just how, though, do the Olympics fit into this? I fear the answer is, not well. This is a story which could easily have been set in 2006 rather than 2012 and if there’s a thematic link between the Olympics and Chloe’s story, it’s pretty thin. There’s a half-hearted attempt in Trish’s dialogue to link it the theme of togetherness, when she says to Chloe, “tonight they’ll light the Olympic Flame in the stadium, and the whole world will be looking at our city. I mean, doesn’t that make you feel part of something?” But other than that, it seems an arbitrary creative choice.

The Olympics bring two unwelcome elements to proceedings; sentimentality and a lack of believability. The lack of believability is inherent. Setting any story in the near future means the audience is immediately doubting its accuracy because we know that everything about the setting is guessed at. But setting it during a future Olympics is even riskier, because they are events with which viewers are familiar.

We know these are enormous, carefully stage managed, yet disruptive events. We know they command massive crowds, not modest gaggles of streetside onlookers. We know the day of the opening ceremony isn’t spent fixing potholes in suburban cul de sacs. We know random strangers aren’t allowed to pick up the Olympic torch, let alone light the Olympic cauldron. All these missteps make Fear Her’s best future guesses look a little naive.

Then there’s the sentimentality, an element the show indulges in only occasionally, usually for anniversaries, regenerations and Christmas specials. The lighting of the Olympic torch is one of those big, showcase moments that Russell T Davies’s version of the show majored in. But it’s also cloyingly saccharine. The aforementioned Kookaburra song moment might work in terms of the plot, but that too is a little more schmaltzy than the series normally goes for. And everyone lives, again.

But I suspect that for a mainstream , non production code memorising section of the audience, this isn’t so much of a problem. On the commentary, for instance, Exec Producer Julie Gardner talks about how moving she found this episode. And as a parent, I find it difficult not to empathise with a story about wanting to help a troubled child, but being afraid and powerless to do so.

But some stories’ reputations are hard to ignore and Fear Her is, as polls go, this century’s The Twin Dilemma. Why it’s so disliked, I’m not sure, but having just come from The Web of Fear, which placed robot yeti in the London Underground in a strange mix of action adventure and mythic mysticism, I’m reminded that although juxtaposition is what Doctor Who does, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Fear Her is just as unlikely combination of elements as those that make up Web, and is in many ways a more sophisticated story. But perhaps they don’t coalesce quite as well to tell a story that compels and thrills in the way we expect the series to.

The other thing is, of course, its concentration on a story sticking close to home, with parents and children and bedrooms and living rooms and so on. There’s been plenty of these stories since 2005, but none of them bother the top levels of the “best of” polls much. Seems like we’re with the Doctor on this one; we don’t like it when he does domestic.

LINK TO The Web of Fear: Juxtaposition. Possession. Plus they both have “fear” in their titles!

NEXT TIME: Reptilian. Biped. A completely alien species! Report forthwith to a date with Doctor Who and The Silurians.

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.

Old days, new ways and School Reunion (2006)

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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!

Family, abuse and The Idiot’s Lantern (2006)

idiot1

For a family program, old Who rarely concerned itself with families. Companions tended to be orphans and runaways. Families were rarely at the centre of stories. New Who, from the get go, has been much more interested in families. It regularly presents us with mothers, fathers and their kids. They often become unwilling adventurers. We’ve even had a family of villains. The Doctor’s family – his daughter, his mother, his wife, his stepparents – have all featured.

Generally, families are shown to be important, positive aspects of life, but also often imperfect. Often, a key family member is missing: a father, a mother, a sister hiding in the hydrangeas. And this absence upsets the whole unit. Occasionally, a family member is afflicted in some way; the alien inhabited daughter in Fear Her, the alien disguised as a son in Night Terrors. All these are presented as crucial problems for the Doctor to solve.

And so to The Idiot’s Lantern, a story which does something quite different, perhaps even unique in showing a family which is inherently broken.

Meet the Connollys: father Eddie (Jamie Forman), mother Rita Connolly (Debra Gillett), teenage son Tommy (Rory Jennings) and Gran (Margaret John). Londoners in 1953, they are complete – no missing members. And although one of them, Gran, becomes afflicted when her face is stolen by the television (we’ll get to that), that’s not the root cause of this family’s troubles. The real problem lies with one of them.

It’s shouty, belligerent Eddie. He rules his house through fear and intimidation. Early in the story we see him bawling out Rita and Tommy and they are clearly terrified. “I am talking!”, he roars at them, if they dare interrupt him. We never see him hit them, but it’s clear that what we’re watching is domestic abuse. That’s what I think makes The Idiot’s Lantern unique. In all Doctor Who‘s permutations of family, we’ve never been allowed to see a wife and child in fear for their safety at the hands of the man of the house.

Luckily, the program punishes Eddie for his behaviour. Firstly, through a visit from the Doctor (David Tennant, with a stratospheric quiff) and Rose (Bille Piper, rockin’ the bobby soxer look). They manage to cleverly mock Eddie without him noticing, causing him to momentarily lose his power. Once that magic trick has worn off, the Doctor stands up to the brute. “I am talking!” barks Eddie, trying his old trick on the Doctor, only to get back an equally ferocious “And I’m not listening!”. The Doctor and Rose have set an example for Rita and Tommy, that standing up is important, and can be done.

Eddie has locked Gran in a room upstairs. She’s not herself, since she watched TV and an alien inhabiting it stole her face (well, it’s that kind of show). She’s catatonic and featureless, but harmless, but still he’s isolated her. Like all the suburb’s various faceless ones, Gran is bundled into a black car and hoarded by the police in a big cage. “This Churchill’s Britain, not Stalin’s Russia,” remarks an astonished Doctor.

The reference to a totalitarian regime is relevant. There’s a strong sense in The Idiot’s Lantern of people being persecuted due to their difference from the norm.  This is relevant to sensitive lad Tommy, who, it is hinted, is gay and who seems like Eddie’s next target after Gran. This, and the constant threat of violence from Eddie converge in a nice piece of dialogue.

EDDIE: Oh, he loves his Gran, this one. Proper little mummy’s boy all round.

AUNTY BETTY: Oh, you know what they say about them. Eddie, you want to beat that out of him.

EDDIE: That’s exactly what I’m going to do.

This leads to an impressive confrontation where the Doctor and Detective Inspector Bishop (Sam Cox) are mere spectators. Appropriately it’s Tommy, not the Doctor, who confronts Eddie, having worked out that he’s been ratting the faceless ones out to the police (Bishop, the man who has been incarcerating the afflicted remains unchallenged for some reason). Gran is the latest abductee, again abetted by Eddie, and taken while Tommy and Rita looked on traumatised.

Perhaps, we might reasonably think, Eddie is acting out of a justifiable concern for his family’s safety. But any hope of that is dashed in an outburst where he betrays his true feelings about Gran sans visage. “She was filthy!” he spits in rage. “A filthy disgusting thing!” It’s not that hard to imagine he might be talking about gay people or black people. He’s the face of old time bigotry.

This is where Rita draws the line and throws her husband out on the street. As she points out, Eddie’s the monster in this house. Good for her too. The Doctor’s house call has opened her eyes, given her the courage to act. It’s fortunate that the house turns out to be in Gran’s name. Many others – then and now – wouldn’t have that security. In story terms, its satisfying that both Tommy and Rita have had the chance to successfully confront their tormentor.

But it all ends on an unfortunately ambiguous note.

The alien of the week has been defeated, and life’s returning to normal. There’s a street party, all orange pop and bunting. We see Eddie walking away from the house, coat, hat, suitcase. “Good riddance” mutters Tommy, but Rose convinces him to go after his father. It’s a delicate final touch, and how right that it’s Rose who delivers it. She knows what it’s like to live without a father; her advice to Tommy is some the Doctor couldn’t give. Convinced, Tommy runs after his father, helps carry his bag on the way to wherever.

Perhaps Eddie is not beyond redemption. And that seems fair enough; he’s a confused and angry man, but not a fundamentally bad one. The mention of his war service puts the viewer in mind of returning veterans and the psychological battles they face. And yes, he ratted on all and sundry, but no harm came to them in the end.

But that last image of a son running after his father… should the program offer even this glimmer of hope to the man we saw perpetrating domestic violence? Would it have been better to leave him completely humiliated? Go on kids, forgive your abusive parents, it seems to say. I dunno.

There’s no right answer. Life’s complex. Families are complex. And this is a harder problem for Doctor Who to solve than a son lost in a forest or a father being turned into a Cyberman. It goes to show that the series’ format isn’t endlessly flexible. Perhaps there are some topics it’s wise to stay clear of.

LINK to The Aztecs: both contain figures of female rule; Queen Elizabeth and Barbara as Yetaxa. Sure, it’s not great. Suggestions welcome!

NEXT TIME… The sun is blazing high in the sky over the New Atlantic, the perfect setting for a contemplation of Gridlock.