Tag Archives: series 2

Albert, George and Tooth and Claw (2006)


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.


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?


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!



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)


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)


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)


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.

Happy, sad and Love & Monsters (2006)

love and mon

So, Love & Monsters. I’m very tempted to write about representations of fandom in Doctor Who. But I think there’ll be other opportunities to do that. And I’m very tempted to talk about its structure, which is a thing of beauty; unique in its narrative approach, metatextual and rhythmic in its plotting. But instead, I’m going to talk about tone and, believe it or not, a bit more about Mindwarp.

My last post was all about structure and how Mindwarp’s was pretty clever (or at least cleverer that it’s usually given credit for). But I refrained from talking about tone, because, well… I’m trying not to include every single idea I have about a story in one blog. But watching Love & Monsters straight after Mindwarp reminded me that tone goes a long way in helping or hindering a story.

Mindwarp’s tone is all over the place. It’s an uneasy mix of violence and comedy. Time and again it shows an unpleasant event followed by a joke, usually delivered by Sil. It says something that on Varos Sil was a real figure of threat; Thoros Beta is so grotesque that his threat becomes impotent and he switches to being a punchline machine. It culminates in Peri’s death, a truly chilling moment, which is then punctuated by Sil grumbling about her supposed ugliness. Add to this the eye-watering colour palette, and the bombastic incidental music, and you’ve got a real assault on the senses. It jars.

But Love & Monsters’ tone is spot on; just as dichotomous as Mindwarp’s, but more balanced and consistent. We know from then showrunner Russell T Davies that part of New Who‘s pre-production process is a tone meeting, where he would equip the key production staff with a word or phrase to sum up the feel of an episode. I wonder what Love & Monsters‘ was?

My guess is that it was two words. The clue is in the title: Love & Monsters. Salvation & Damnation. Happy & Sad. Comedy & tragedy.  Side by side.

Let’s start with comedy. Or if it’s not quite a comedy, it’s still pretty comic (or comedic, I suppose. What’s the difference?). Which comes as a relief on its original broadcast, as the preceding story The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit was very dark indeed. New Who, like Old Who, is full of humour, but this was the first time it became the focus of an entire episode.

The humour is delivered not by the plot (a group of friends is infiltrated by an alien seeking to use them to track down and kill the Doctor) which is as serious as any other Who story. It comes instead from the characters themselves. The friends themselves are a ragtag group of oddballs brought together by their awareness of the Doctor. They come from different walks of life and all have different stories. But their common factor, and the reason they’re funny, is that they’re all dags.

For those unfamiliar with the term “dag”, it’s a brilliant Australian slang word. It originally meant, ignominiously, a bit of dried poo hanging off a sheep’s bum. But its usage these days is, as wikipedia puts it: “as an affectionate insult for someone who is, or is perceived to be, unfashionable, lacking self-consciousness about their appearance and/or with poor social skills yet affable and amusing.” I can think no better word to describe the members of LINDA; they’re not social misfits, they’re not outcasts, they’re dags.

Take Elton (Marc Warren, being endearingly goofy), our chief dag. He’s speaks just a little too earnestly. He tucks his shirt into neatly pressed jeans. He dances like a white man. To ELO, of all things. He’s still a nice guy, but he says funny things without realising it. Like when he says: “I had to invent this rudimentary pulley system, just to reach my boots.” What a dag.

Then there’s Victor Kennedy, funnier than all of LINDA put together (and as he’s played by comedian Peter Kay, you’d expect him to be). He’s a fan turned bad. His obsession and self-importance have turned him into parody. He dresses like an impresario. He’s inherently theatrical; his first line is “Lights!”. He can’t be touched because of his ’exzeema’. “I don’t like to be touched,” he pronounces. “Literally, or metaphorically, thank you very much.” Even when he transforms into the corpulent Abzorbaloff, he’s still cracking funnies (although now in a working class accent). “Tastes like chicken”, he quips after devouring Ursula.

So we have a load of funny characters but we also have some deliberate references to classic comedy. The opening sequence of the Doctor, Rose and monster-of-the-week the Hoix running in and out of doors is classic slapstick. And there’s a mimicking of the comedy structure. The sequence, staged twice, where separate characters christen the villain the Absorbaloff, could have been lifted out of any number of sketch comedy shows. Later on, there’s this exchange of dialogue, which is only missing an “I say, I say, I say” to kick it off:

DOCTOR: Not from Raxacoricofallapatorius, are you?
VICTOR: No, I’m not. They’re swine. I spit on them. I was born on their twin planet.
DOCTOR: Really? What’s the twin planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius?

This comic tone allows the story to get away with what might otherwise be seen as some plotting misteps. The story requires a massive coincidence – that Elton finds Jackie almost immediately the vastness of London – but that moment is played for laughs (Elton talking about how massive the task is, then a jump cut to him meeting Mrs Croot who identifies Rose from a photo), so we forgive this huge plot contrivance. It’s a joke; we get it and we move on. The tone helps paper over a few other bits and pieces. Who is the Abzorbaloff? How did he get to Earth? What’s he doing here in the first place? And Elton’s encounter with the Doctor and the Hoix might make for “a brilliant opening” but shh, say it quietly, it’s unnecessary to the plot.

Using a story’s tone to disguise its narrative gaffes is a neat trick. But Love & Monsters’ real success is that among the laughs, it tells a couple of very sad stories too. One is about Elton’s Mum. Being reunited with the Doctor at the story’s climax allows Elton to find out what happened on the night she died. Director Dan Zeff shows a haunting deftness when Elton’s Mum disappears and the picture flares white to the closing chords of Mr Blue Sky. It works because we’ve grown to love Elton through the story’s comedy.

And it works with Jackie as well, a character often used as comic relief in New Who’s first two years. And she’s funny here too, but she gets a cracking scene where she confronts Elton after she discovers Rose’s photo in his jacket. Camille Coduri, always brilliant, is especially so in this scene. “Let me tell you something about those who get left behind”, she bawls at him. “Because it’s hard. And that’s what you become, hard.” Just as with Elton, she’s gone from a figure of fun to someone we genuinely feel for.

Appropriately, the story ends in both victory and triumph. The Absorbaloff absorbed by the earth, but Bliss, Bridget and Mr Skinner, lovely dags the lot of them, all killed. Ursula lives, albeit trapped within, of all things, a paving stone. And as Elton worries about Jackie and Rose’s safety as long as the Doctor’s around (salvation and damnation are the same thing), he’s told not to be so morbid; there’s still time for his final video diary entry to raise a smile with some surprisingly filthy innuendo.

That’s Love & Monsters for you. Sticking to that happy/sad tone right to the end. And appropriately enough, it’s a story which fans love or hate. Well, chalk me up as one of the lovers, because it shows how to use a story’s light hearted highs, to make us we feel its lows all the more poignantly.

LINK to Mindwarp and Turn Left, as it happens. All three feature popular contemporary TV comedians in lead roles.

NEXT TIME: So close you can feel the heat! We’re off to the cinema for Dr. Who and the Daleks.

Cliffhangers, magic switches and Army of Ghosts/Doomsday (2006)


In Doctor Who’s olden days, we had cliffhangers. We get them occasionally in New Who as well, but these days we’re more likely to get throw forwards, otherwise known as trailers. How much a throw forward is part of an episode is debatable; sometimes they add little to an otherwise just completed episode. But sometimes they bring something new and interesting to its dying seconds.

Army of Ghosts has a great cliffhanger and an intriguing throw forward. First though, let me witter on about how it gets to those, because this is a smartly structured episode. Writer Russell T Davies has no time to waste, so this week’s alien incursion is already well underway by the time the Doctor (David Tennant, at the end of year one) and Rose (Billie Piper, about to wave the show goodbye) arrive to visit Jackie (Camille Coduri, hooray). They learn about the infestation of ghosts and the Doctor sets about disproving it in a typical “I’m having none of that superstitious nonsense” kind of way.

The quest leads them to Torchwood, much hinted at during this season and about which we’ve been learning about throughout the episode. With the Doctor and Torchwood plot strands combined, Davies splits his story again almost immediately: the Doctor and Jackie discover Torchwood and its role in generating the ghosts, while Rose finds the mysterious sphere and former squeeze Mickey (Noel Clarke). So the stage is set for a two-pronged episode ending.

Meanwhile, Davies has been indulging in a little misdirection. The Doctor assumes that the Sphere is the work of the Cybermen, and Mickey guesses that it contains a big bad Cyber-daddy. The episode is approaching its end when the Cyberleader says they know nothing about the sphere, confounding (hopefully) audience expectations. We end on a double cliffhanger: the Doctor confronted with the prospect of millions of Cybermen around the world, and Rose trapped when a posse of Daleks emerge from the sphere. Fangasms worldwide.

Now for the throw forward, and specifically, its last seconds. Over shots of the Cyberleader, a Dalek and a worried looking Rose and Mickey, we hear a Cyberman saying: “Cybermen plus Daleks. Together we could upgrade the universe”. A tantalising ending, which raises the prospect of something new and nerdy; a match-up between the series two biggest baddies.

Again, its misdirection. No such alliance is forged in Doomsday. One is proposed by the Cybermen and brutally rejected by the Daleks. And of course, when you think about it, that makes sense. As Davies has pointed out, the Daleks are cosmos-conquering, time travelling geniuses. Cybermen are us with bits added. The former has no need for the latter.

But it also reminds us that Cybermen and Daleks are not the same; their technologies might be compatible, but they themselves are not. Davies emphasises that Cybermen are emotionless and Daleks are anything but. They are boastful, quick to anger, goading and they scream inside their bonded polycarbide armour. They can even be tricked into revealing their names by appealing to their pride. Sometimes, even in Doctor Who itself, the Daleks are portrayed as emotionless, rational robots, incapable of imagination and inventiveness. But that’s the Cybermen. Daleks are creatures of pure emotion, specifically hate.

Interestingly, although Doctor Who generally avoids monster match ups (unlike say the 1960s Batman series, which, when ratings were failing, would wheel out a double bill of the Joker and the Penguin, for instance. Zonk!) it often puts supplementary monsters alongside the Daleks to indicate what they are not. They are not, for example, the Robomen, who are brainless slaves. They’re not the Slyther or Varga plants which are simple unthinking beasts. They’re not muscly grunt like the Ogrons or aestheic show ponies like the Movellans. And they’re not Davros, who can hold a (admittedly megalomaniacal) conversation.

So the Daleks are the main game. They outsmart and outgun everybody in order to get their Genesis Ark primed and ready to spew forth millions of themselves in the skies above London. But the Doctor has a trick up his sleeve. He’s worked out that because the Daleks and Cybermen are covered in voidstuff, he can open the breach and they’ll be sucked into it.

Davies can sometimes be accused of employing a quick, convenient solution to his stories; I call it the magic switch. For a classic example, consider New Earth; a cocktail of medicines spreads itself amongst the infected experimentees. Game over, nice and easy. And hey, who can blame him? He’s only got 45 mins an episode, he doesn’t have time to muck around. An ending, albeit one achieved by throwing a magic switch, is still an ending.

But Doomsday does it better. Here the fictional explanation about the voidstuff makes a kind of sense, and is signposted early enough in the episode to make it seem less of an arbitrary quick fix, rolled out as time ticks away. The Doctor’s plan takes time to set up as well; it’s no instant cure all and that also helps sell it to the audience. And it’s not perfect – opening the breach puts the Doctor and Rose at risk too – so it’s hardly convenient. In story terms, it’s no less a magic switch than any other pulled in the series’ long history, but it’s sold to us better.

And so an epic story comes to and end. Daleks and Cybermen thrown into hell, and the Doctor and Rose separated by the walls of parallel universes. And just at the end, we get a surprise; there’s suddenly a bride in control room. Cue the first of our “what? What? What?!” moments. The cliffhanger lives to fight another day.

LINKS to Pyramids of Mars: Torchwood has an Egyptian sarcophagus in it’s collection of stolen alien goods. Surely a hat tip?

NEXT TIME… A space helmet for a cow? It’s back to the Hartnell era for The Time Meddler.