Tag Archives: series 3

Reverence, irreverence and The Shakespeare Code (2007)

shakespeare

In the newfound Twitch-inspired spirit of “London, 1965!” let’s head back for a moment to The ChaseSo many wacky things happen in that story, but among my favourites is when the Doctor and co take possession of a big television, upon which they could watch any event in all of space and time. Given free rein on this miraculous device, all Barbara wants to do is tune in to see Shakespeare throwing around ideas for new plays with Elizabeth I and Francis Bacon. Any kids watching as an Saturday escape from the weekday grind of school must have groaned. All of time and space filled with Daleks and Zarbi and she wants to watch Shakespeare?!

But it’s typical of classic Doctor Who, which loved Shakespeare from afar, but never sought to meet him in person. The Doctor never travelled back in time to meet him and have an exciting adventure in doublet and hose (which when you think about, seems perfect for Season 2). And though he once claimed to have done some light secretarial work for Shakespeare, he might have just been trying to impress a beautiful woman, probably.

For 20th century Who, Shakespeare was there only to be reverentially alluded toIts various producers never mined Shakespeare for plots. It robbed other works of fiction shamelessly, from The Prisoner of Zenda to High Rise, but we never got the Doctor Who version of Twelfth Night or Macbeth. We never even got a trip back to meet Richard III or Henry V to compare them to their  Shakespearean depictions.

Instead, the show referenced the Bard through quotes, often with a knowing wink to the audience. The first Doctor quoted The Merchant of Venice while the sixth loved Hamlet. But the fourth was the greatest Shakespeare fan. Tom Baker never missed an opportunity to insert a few lines in a quick audition for the RSC. My favourite is, “out out, dusty death” after a Cybermat was killed with gold dust, but no doubt you have your own.

All this is to say that old Doctor Who kept a respectful distance from Shakespeare. But new Who likes to put its literary heroes centre stage. So Doctor Who meets Shakespeare seems not only like a cracking idea for adventure, but also long overdue.

*****

In The Chase, Shakespeare is the mousy, middle-aged, high foreheaded figure we know from his portraits. In The Shakespeare Code, he’s a handsome young buck, played with schoolboy charm by Dean Lennox Kelly. This type of Shakespeare was a recent innovation in 2007. The irreverent influence of 1998’s slick, self-aware cinema hit Shakespeare in Love was still palpable.

Shakespeare in Love also portrays Shakespeare as a young, bawdy rock star figure. He’s played by handsome Joseph Fiennes, as a character whose literary genius makes him attractive to many around him, and not just the ladies. He dashes about in a flappy shirt, a tight leather jacket and a single stud earring. He fights and quips and drinks and wins the girl, who’s dressed as a boy. He’s the unmistakable hero of the piece, and a long way from that bookish looking fellow with the pinched face, the ruff and the goatee.

The Shakespeare Code not only mirrors Shakespeare in Love’s take on Shakespeare; it also adopts its jokey, self-referential tone. In both, Shakespeare hears his own famous lines being quoted back at him and modern day affectations, like fans asking for signatures and therapists’ sessions, are aped. In both, the Master of the Revels is a sneering threat and Queen Elizabeth makes a cameo. Both are comic, knockabout adventures.

Except that in The Shakespeare Code,  Shakespeare is not the hero. There’s our tall, flappy coated Doctor (David Tennant) for that. So Shakespeare has to play second fiddle to him here, rushing around behind him and Martha (Freema Agyeman) like an extra companion. Like our other celebrity historicals, he’s enlisted into the Doctor’s coterie to help save the day. And in a trait common to lots of 21st century Who (but particularly noticeable in stories written by Gareth Roberts), the guest character has to step up and save the day, when the Doctor needs help. Here Shakespeare is inspired by the Doctor to find the words which seals the witchy Carrionites’ fate. After years of the Doctor taking his cue from Shakespeare, it’s nice to see how that works in reverse.

***

This is the first of Roberts’ many scripts for the series, and the last one to be Randomed, so it’s worth thinking about his contribution to the show. In fact, it would  be shirking a difficult topic not to. His episodes are well regarded, but lately, he’s been provoking fierce reactions through Twitter account, which often expresses his disdain for the political left. He also offended many with a couple of ill-considered tweets about trans people. All of this means there is a distinctly critical prevailing view of him at the moment.

It would be a shame, though, to discount his Doctor Who episodes, which are consistently smart, witty and well constructed. It took until Series 3 for Roberts to be added to the show’s writing retinue, but once he was, he quickly became a regular fixture, presumably because of his ability to reliably deliver good quality scripts. The Shakespeare Code is typical of his work: regularly funny, with a string of good one-liners, but also well plotted, hitting the right beats and the right time, creating interesting characters and using them as counter-points to the Doctor. You can see why Russell T Davies and later Steven Moffat kept inviting him back. He always delivered the goods.

Whether he’ll be invited back though… well, who can say? It seems unlikely. But for now, what we have are six better than average episodes written (or co-written) by someone whose public persona is as a provocateur, a sideline commentator, an occasional contrarian and for some, it must be said, an unforgivable transphobe. It’s an interesting dichotomy if you’re attracted to his creative work, but not to his politics or the way he expresses himself.

But because of that, I’d argue that how we view The Shakespeare Code and his other work, has changed since 2007. And how we view that work in future years, of course, remains to be seen. But I think this is Doctor Who’s fandom’s first struggle (at least in the 21st century) between recognising the quality of a piece of work, while finding its creator’s views objectionable. Can we no longer bring ourselves to do the former, because of the latter? But for some, that’s absolutely going to be the case.

****

Back to that moment in The Chase. If only Hartnell and Co had twisted that dial a little further backwards, they might have been able to watch the events of The Shakespeare Code on that big ol’ TV. What would the first Doctor have made of it?

VICKI: Look! There’s a young, dashing Doctor with a black assistant! (Doctor sits down in shock)

BARBARA: And Shakespeare’s a spunk! (Doctor loses consciousness)

IAN: And in the space year 2017, the writer of this adventure causes a furore by offending trans people everywhere! (Doctor keels over and regenerates)

LINK TO… Mission to the UnknownDid Roberts name his heroine in Planet of the Dead after Mission actor Edward De Souza? For the purposes of this link, let’s say yes.

NEXT TIME: Let’s stick with that particular TARDIS team and watch them put some Morok arms in Xeron hands while visiting The Space Museum

Advertisements

Super heroes, super villains and Utopia/The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords (2007)

Each of the first few years of new Who resurrected a classic adversary from the series’ past. Year one: Daleks. Year two: Cybermen. In retrospect, it seems obvious that year three’s returnee should be the Master. But it didn’t feel like that at the time.

Because there’s always been an ambivalence about the Master. Sometimes he’s a dark yet fascinating mirror image of the Doctor. Sometimes he’s a plug and play villain with a penchant for theatrics and over complication. It would not have been inconceivable for new Who to leave him buried in the time war.

But as the new show’s third year progressed, there became something increasingly heroic about the Doctor. I mean that in the sense of him being a super hero.

With David Tennant in the title role, he becomes a man with super powers. He can grow back severed limbs. He can go for a mental stroll through people’s minds. He can expel radiation into his shoe. And of course he can disguise himself as a human. In Utopia and The Sound of Drums there are loads of shots of him running around to save the day, coat flapping in the breeze like a cape, sidekicks running slightly behind. You half expect him to fly.

The Master says that he was resurrected as the ultimate warrior for the time war. But in production terms, he was resurrected for exactly the same reason that Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks created him in the first place. By series 3, the Doctor’s a super hero and so he needs a super villain.

****

Showrunner Russell T Davies would have been well aware of the mixed feelings around bringing the Master back. So he does exactly what he did with the Daleks and the Cybermen; he renovates him.

In the Master’s case, the first challenge is to cast a brilliant actor in the lead role, someone who can provide a gravitas to the role and improve its respectability, in the same way the casting of Christopher Eccleston had done in year one. But this year, Davies went one better than finding a top class actor for the role; he found two.

The first is Derek Jacobi. As Professor Yana, he’s a kindly, doddery old soul. As the short-lived version of the Master, he’s a raging beast, freshly awoken and hungry. His fury is palpable from the moment he turns on his horrified assistant Chantho (Chipo Chung) who’s just pulled a gun on him. “Now I can say I was provoked,” he says chillingly, although he’s clearly a man who answers to no one for his actions. He rails against her stupidity and leaving him trapped for years. Just before he zaps his insectoid helper with a live cable, he hisses out the words that many suspected but few dared to definitely guess until he said them out loud: “I… Am… The Master!” Electrifying. Still one of new Who’s best moments.

It’s a sign of how well Doctor Who was doing in 2007 that it could book Sir Derek Jacobi for one episode, have him play the Master for a few minutes, then burn right through him. But in only a few minutes he brings something new to this most familiar of characters- a seething resentment for the years he’s lost. This is a Master who feels hard done by. And when he regenerates, it’s not just a matter of life-saving expedience, it’s an act motivated by jealousy. “If the Doctor can be young and strong, so can I!” he declares. And in a flash of light, he looks like John Simm.

If Jacobi’s Master’s defining characteristic is anger, Simm’s is an ongoing delight at his own cleverness. He’s so pleased with his evil plan to take over the world, that he can’t help laughing, dancing and clapping his hands in joy. He’s a jokey, jovial madman. Davies has said that his aim was to make the Master as charming and charismatic as Tennant’s crowd pleasing Doctor and he got it spot on. Simm proves to be the first guest star of the new series who gives a performance which outshines the Doctor.

In The Sound of Drums, the Master is an entertaining bad guy, one you can’t help but like. In Last of the Time Lords, he becomes a hateful despot; a mass murderer, a bully, a torturer and a wife beater. In a series first, we get to see the consequences of the Master winning, and they’re not pretty. It’s clever of Davies, because one of the weaknesses of old Master schemes in which he threatened to take over the Earth – stories like The Claws of Axos and The Sea Devils, specifically mentioned here – was the nagging doubt about how a nutbag like him would manage to dominate an entire planet on his own. The answer given here is by totalitarianism on a grand scale. He’s Kim Jong Il but with killer floating globes from outer space.

****

Such an epic plan requires a reset switch of epic proportions. Best not to stop to think about Martha (Freema Agyeman) travelling the world solo and spreading her story to get the world’s population to pray to the Doctor at a specific time. Best also not to look too lingeringly at those closely framed shots of a few extras, attempting to show a planet full of people chanting “Doctor”. Best also not to think about how the Doctor uses the psychic energy to restore himself from a stunted, wizened elf to a flying, laser beam resistant super being, complete with a new costume. Well, he is a super hero these days.

All that’s just window dressing though. I think the cleverest part of the story is how in defeat, the Master finds a way to wound the Doctor. Throughout the story, the Doctor’s been explaining to the Master that they are the only Time Lords left, pleading that they only have each other. In a funny way, the Doctor longs for them to be together, in a way that the Master clearly doesn’t give two hoots about. When the Doctor talks mournfully of Gallifrey burning, all the Master can do is marvel at the idea of its destruction, almost lustfully.

So it makes perfect sense that the Doctor wants to forgive the Master for his heinous crimes, because he wants them to coexist. Perhaps even cohabitate, as the Doctor suggests as the Master’s captured. The Doctor’s so desperate not to be the last of the Time Lords he’ll save the Master and let him move in. But when he’s shot, the Master finds that by deliberately letting himself die, he’s denying the Doctor the thing he most wants: companionship. “I win!” he smiles as he dies. For him, it’s always been a contest. For the Doctor, a rescue mission.

It ends with the Doctor burning his old frenemy’s body on a pyre and a red fingernailed hand salvaging a mysterious ring from the ashes. It’s a comic book style ending. But that makes sense. ‘Cos comic books are where you’ll find super heroes and super villains.

LINK TO The Stones of Blood: as per last time, the post-coital scenes.

NEXT TIME: One man’s law is another man’s crime. We’re heading Inside the Spaceship.

 

 

Brain teasers, mind benders and 42 (2007)

42

Showrunners have become like Doctors. Every few years one succumbs to exhaustion (or perhaps falls from a radio telescope, we don’t know what goes on behind the scenes in Cardiff) and regenerates. The time in between tenures is marked by uncertainty and worry. What will the new guy be like? Will he ruin everything? Or will he be brilliant? (We never seem to canvas the most likely option that he’ll do some things we like, some things we don’t, but on the whole things will be OK.)

And so Steven Moffat is going to hand over to Chris Chibnall after Series 10. With the best will in the world, it’s fair enough to say that his ascension to the showrunner’s swivelly chair has not been met with the same anticipation as the Moff’s. Moffat had written four highly acclaimed Doctor Who stories before he took over the show, as well as a string of TV successes including the much praised update of Jekyll. Chibnall has written four, well, not so highly acclaimed Doctor Who stories and was lead writer on the first two series of Torchwood (both of which had mixed reviews). Never mind that he also has a string of TV credits, including the much praised (at least in its first season) Broadchurch. He’s not the guy who wrote Blink, he’s the guy who wrote The Hungry Earth, so although it’s chronically unfair to judge him before he does the job, that’s exactly what a lot of folk will do.

I doubt if Chibnall cares. A fan of long standing, he knows what an unforgiving lot Whoheads can be and was no doubt prepared for a certain amount of backlash. In fact, he was part of that fervent mob back in 1986, when he went on telly to chastise Pip and Jane Baker for their work on The Trial of a Time Lord. Jane’s no longer with us, but we can only hope that Pip will get his own back in 2018, on a live talk back special or something. “I think the dialogue is far too pedestrian and there should really be a wicked female scientist of some sort,” I hope he says.

Anyway, to 42, and via it to the rest of Chibnall’s Who work to see what might be divined about his approach to the series once he gets his grubby little protuberances on it. It’s difficult to see from his grab bag of episodes what particular slant he has on the show, because he seems to have always been given a tight brief to work with. He seems to be the guy who writes Who to order.

42 has a particularly clear brief – to write a ‘race against the clock’ episode and set it in real time. Chibnall’s script works well within these strictures. These sort of stories work by heaping problem upon problem on our heroes until quite late in proceedings, so that it seems there’s not enough time left for everything to work out well. The challenge is for a resolution to emerge at the last minute that seems logical, but not coincidental. Chibnall’s pacing of events throughout the episode, combined with vibrant direction from Graeme LOTSOFLUVERLYENERGY! Harper, means he pulls off this trick. The finished product holds the audience’s attention firmly, if not quite nail bitingly.

What he doesn’t manage is to create particularly interesting characters. The crew of the good ship Pentallian are generic sci-fi crew member fodder. Only Michelle Collins as Captain (Go on – see if you can remember her character’s name without looking it up) and perhaps William Ash as (Go on – have another go), a sort of love interest for Freema Agyeman (if you can’t remember her character’s name, you’re reading the wrong blog), make any lasting impression. Chibnall’s next story, The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood has a similarly lacklustre supporting cast, but by the time we get to his two Series 7 stories, he’s changed approach and given us characters derived from strong established archetypes (big game hunters and UNIT’s scientific advisers), allowing him to vary his line ups from my generic angsty humans under pressure.

There is a pattern there, in those collections of odd bod humans, often in isolated situations, struggling to make sense of an alien threat they don’t understand. So far, so Doctor Who I hear you say. Perhaps that in itself is a Chibnallesque trait: he understands the fundamentals of Doctor Who, and doesn’t seek to subvert them as Moffat does. If so, we might be illuminating one reason why Chibnall’s rise to the top job hasn’t filled everyone with joy: to date he’s demonstrated he knows how to make good Doctor Who, but not innovative, ground breaking Doctor Who.

So it would makes sense that his Doctor Who eps feel quite traditional, reminiscent of classic Who. As many have noted, 42 is a re-run of Tom Baker’s Planet of Evil and The Hungry Earth feels like a deliberate combination of elements from early Pertwee stories The Silurians, Inferno and The Daemons.  Dinosaurs on a Spaceship brings to mind The Ark in Space and Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Even his most novel episode, The Power of Three, is a UNIT story which rejigs the trick of alien technology being unwittingly taken into peoples homes a la The Invasion  and Terror of the Autons. (Although we don’t get the unsubtle continuity references in the dialogue you get from say, Mark Gatiss, another writer influenced heavily by the series’ past.)

We might well expect more new Who that feels like old Who from a Chibnall series, which may please many a old fanboy and girl. And surely 42 is the epitome of that. After all, it is effectively set in one long corridor that people spend a lot of time running up and down.

*****

Philip Hinchcliffe has said about Terror of the Zygons that a lot of brilliant work on a Doctor Who  story can be undone by one dud special effect. 42 shows us this is also true of dud plot elements, where the credulity-stretching pub quiz questions which open the various bulkhead doors, sticks out like an unsightly scratch on an Elvis LP (pre-download, you understand). It’s a half-hearted gimmick, which no-one has the enthusiasm to see through to the episode’s end. (Although you can see how a fiendishly difficult last door question with Martha having to guess the answer with seconds to spare might have worked). I think it’s this hokey element which stops what is otherwise a slick and stylish episode being more fondly remembered.

Still, I think a trick was missed. In an episode called 42, and one featuring a ship falling into a sun, we might have expected a bit more hat-tipping to Who alumnus Douglas Adams. Surely one of those brain teasers should have been ‘what’s the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?’. Deep Thought would have approved.

LINK TO The Krotons: both require the Doctor’s companion to answer a set of quiz questions.

NEXT TIME: We are put down right in the middle of the French Revolution. Yes, The Reign of Terror.

 

Changing, unchanging and Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks (2007)

daleks manhattan

1980s script editor Andrew Cartmel recounts a story of how, in his early days of working on Doctor Who, he suggested to producer John Nathan-Turner the use of a tentacled monster. Apparently JN-T said with world weary experience, ‘tentacles are difficult’.

Twenty years later, he was proven right when this lurid two part story featured a human Dalek hybrid as its main villain. An intricate mask of make up and prosthetics transforms actor Eric Loren into a man with a Cusick style Dalek mutant for a head. Unfortunately it also has a series of tentacles which twitch awkwardly throughout proceedings, and look unfortunately phallic. This guy, he’s quite the dickhead.

The image of Dalek Sec, in his pin striped suit and black and white shoes below his scaly one eyed doodle face, dominates Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks. But it shouldn’t overshadow the interesting themes running through the story. Writer Helen Raynor mashes up the Daleks with depression era New York, and body horror with song and dance, to pose questions about human nature. It’s an unusual combination of elements, but it’s the most innovative take on a Dalek story since 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks, with which it shares a focus on the dividing lines between humans and Daleks.

The theme is established early through the character of Solomon (Hugh Quarshie), named (not very subtly) after the biblical king, whose wisdom was evoked in the story of the two mothers who claimed one baby. Here, he similarly mediates in a fight between two men over a loaf of bread. “No matter how bad things get,” he scolds them, “we still act like human beings.”

Things get pretty bad for young hot potato Laszlo (Ryan Carnes) who, early in the story, is turned into a hybrid pig slave. Once considered comely, he now has a face only his devoted showgirl Tallulah (Miranda Raison) can love. Unlike the legion of other pig slaves, Laszlo hangs on to his humanity, and is a constant reminder of what Solomon was saying.

On the other end of the spectrum is the ruthless foreman Mr Diagoras (named, it seems, after an ancient Greek atheist). He’s supervising the construction of the Empire State Building, and is pushing his workers to their limits, knowing their desperation for paid employment in the middle of the Depression. Diagoras’ masters are the Daleks, and they are pleased with him. “You think like a Dalek,” one of them says to him. And soon enough, he’ll have functional appendages like one too. And not so functional ones hanging from his face.

So the story is peppered throughout with characters talking about – or pushing the boundaries of – what it means to be human or Dalek. This leads to the reveal of Dalek Sec’s big plan, the hybridization of himself with a human being. The trouble is, this goes against his troops’ deeply ingrained instincts towards racial purity. As a result, we get something very rare: a Dalek/Dalek argument.

DALEK THAY: This action contradicts the Dalek Imperative.

DALEK JAST: Daleks are supreme. Humans are weak.

DALEK SEC: But there are millions of humans and only four of us. If we are supreme, why are we not victorious? The Cult of Skaro was created by the Emperor for this very purpose. To imagine new ways of survival.

DALEK THAY: But we must remain pure.

DALEK SEC: No, Dalek Thay. Our purity has brought us to extinction. We must adapt to survive.

Post transformation, Dalek Sec initially finds what he desires from the human part of himself: ambition, hatred and aggression. “This species is so very Dalek,” he savours, like a connoisseur sipping a new wine. Predictably enough though, Sec starts to exhibit qualities such as mercy and humility, to such an extent that his Dalek compadres can no longer take it. In my favourite scene, two Dalek conspirators sneak off into the sewer and admit their doubts about Sec’s plan to each other. One’s head swivels around 180 degrees to check they’re not being eavesdropped upon. That bit never fails to raise a smile; this species is so very human.

From then on it’s only a matter of time until they turn on old penis features. They don’t simply exterminate him (they never do when it’s someone important). They chain him by the neck and force him to walk on all fours. He gets to die sacrificing himself for the Doctor, the first Dalek to ever do so. And the Daleks return to their villainous status quo.

This is the ultimate problem with a story like Daleks in Manhattan, or indeed The Evil of the Daleks, or any story that tries to do something new with the Daleks. They are the least flexible component of Doctor Who. If you try to alter them, they have to be reset to their original monstrous state. They can’t be changed.

A separate, more morally ambiguous strain of Daleks, perhaps even with newly designed casings might be a very interesting development for Doctor Who. I doubt it will ever happen though. Remember the outrage when there was an attempt to update the Dalek design in Victory of the Daleks (not to mention what the Nation estate would have to say). They can’t be touched, literally or metaphorically.

Where this inevitably leads us, is to the need for Davros. He’s the one great innovation in the Daleks. When introduced to the series in 1975, he provided the impetus for the next four stories. Even in the new series, he periodically pops up to liven things up. And look, the next Dalek story after Daleks in Manhattan sees his return. Because he’s a character which can add that element of unpredictability to the Daleks. Dalek Sec had the potential to be another recurring character in the Davros mould; someone who could have been the spark that lit some new fire under the Dalek mythos.

But can you imagine being confronted with those spasming face cocks every time he turned up? No. Just no. Haven’t we learnt? Tentacles are difficult.

LINK TO Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways. I don’t have to point this out, do I?

NEXT TIME: Unhand me, Madam! It’s more trouble with tentacles in Spearhead from Space.

 

Admiration, imitation and Blink (2007)

blink2

On my intro page, it says I’m not going to instantly assume that the stories everyone loves are automatically brilliant. And the example I chose was Blink, an episode consistently voted as one of the best, if not the best episode, of New Who. And while it might be diverting to argue that Blink is not the all-conquering classic its reputed to be, I couldn’t keep it up. Truth is, Blink is an outstanding example of Doctor Who. At the time of writing it has a rating of 9.8/10 on imdb.com, based on 10,582 votes. That’s a lot of 9s and 10s.

Radio Times readers recently voted it their favourite episode since the series’ return in 2005. Writer Steven Moffat was gracious about the honour:

You know, when I wrote it, I thought Blink was a perfectly serviceable script. Nothing special, did the job which, back then, was to have a Doctor Who story needing only two daysshooting from David Tennant… What made it a little bit magical was, of course, the work of othersSome days everything just works.

Moffat is right to point out that this was a team effort, but he downplays his own role in its success a little too modestly. His script is the tightest ever written for the series; there’s barely a word out of place. It’s not perfect of course – you have to accept the central paradox that no one wrote the Doctor’s half of his conversation with heroine Sally Sparrow for the story to work (the bootstrap paradox, recently tutorialised for us by Before the Flood) and Martha has no useful role to play, criminally underusing the terrific Freema Agyeman, and why would a Weeping Angel which can move like quicksilver need to disable its victim by bunging a rock at ’em? – but these are quibbles. Overall, it’s a beautifully crafted piece of work.

Each scene moves effortlessly, logically but never predictably into the next. The dialogue is smart and subtle and often poignant. The stakes are gradually raised throughout each act, till we reach a truly riveting finale, with the Angels stalking our heroes in order to gain access to the TARDIS. The resolution with the TARDIS departing leaving the Angels tricked into paralyzing each other, is novel and satisfying, and there’s a cute little postscript to wrap up the loose ends. Honestly, film schools will be using this as a set text.

As for “the work of others” as Moff puts it, foremost there’s director Hettie MacDonald, who not only tells the story with pace and endows it with slick, spooky style, she creates the visual grammar for the Weeping Angels – sudden cuts, unnerving shot choices, big close ups on those blank faces – which many after her have taken up. She’s recently returned for The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, and it’s a mystery why it’s taken so long. Ernie Vinzce’s photography is flawless, adding a noirish sheen to it all. Millennium FX’s designs for the Weeping Angels make them modern day Ray Cusicks. And in the middle of it all Carey Mulligan, five minutes away from superstardom, being beautiful and strong and holding our attention as well as any Doctor could.

No wonder then, that Doctor Who has never really recovered from Blink. Every episode since exists in its shadow.

*****

Ah the heady days of 2007. As I mentioned when talking about Voyage of the Damned, Doctor Who was flying high that year. Two spin off shows, two companion factual show and Kylie Minogue for Christmas. But Steven Moffat’s expectations forBlink, that poor Doctor-lite, mid-season filler were not high. “I doubt Blink will top any polls, because of the simple fact that Doctor Who should do what it says on the tin,” said Moffat in DWM 383, “which is provide you with David Tennant popping out of his TARDIS and kicking the crap out of alien nasties,”

These days it’s a surprise when Blink doesn’t top a poll. When the Moff was presented with an award from DWM in 2014 for writing the most popular story of all time, he was challenged to predict which story earned him this honour. “Is it Blink? It’s always Blink,” he warily guessed. (Not on this occasion. Perhaps it was just the 50th anniversary afterglow talking, but this time it was The Day of the Doctor. Blink came second.) Even the Moff seems slightly worried that Blink is going to be the height of his Who career; years of showrunning and he’s never quite put that lightning back in the bottle.

But that’s not stopped him from trying. The Angels have made numerous reappearances, although it’s not those that feel so much like an attempt to recapture that old Blinky magic. I think it’s first noticeable in the creation of the Silence, monsters which, like the Angels, are tricksy when viewed. Then there’s Deep Breath, named like Blink after an reflexive bodily function which you have to suppress the urge to do to stay alive. And then there’s Listen, again named after something we all do, but which features a briefly features a ‘monster’ you mustn’t look at. (I look forward to Sneeze and less so to Fart. Featuring the Slitheen.) There’s also the tendency for things to happen to the Doctor out of order, as seem in many a tale – The Big Bang, The Impossible Astronaut and so on, but it starts here, in the timey wimey Blink.

This hero worship of a story has happened before. There’s 1960s thriller The Web of Fear, which spawned the near identical The Invasion and led to a whole string of stories with the military protecting the Earth from alien incursion. As late as Invasion of the Dinosaurs, there are still monsters lurking in the London Underground. Then there’s 1980s crash wallop Earthshock, which brought about no end of stories featuring returning monsters and downbeat endings. We might also add City of Death to that list, because its Parisian exteriors inspired later trips to Amsterdam, Lanzarote and Seville.

None of this is a bad thing. Doctor Who should seek to emulate its best episodes. Its producers would be mad not to. And if it feels like things are a little familiar from time to time, it’s hardly the worst crime. But here’s to the day when an even better episode than Blink comes along. That will truly be something to not take your eyes off.

LINK to The End of the World. Both feature characters communicating across time (Rose & Jackie and Sally & the Doctor).

NEXT TIME. It’s The Curse of Peladon and that’s a solid hairy fact.

 

Faith, contradiction and Gridlock (2007)

gridlock1

What exactly does Gridlock have to say about faith? A quick Google search will show that this is an episode claimed by different commentators as being pro-religion or anti-religion. All this from an episode which centres around a big traffic jam. What’s going on?

Let’s start here: movieguide.org is “the family guide to movies and entertainment”. It awards the annual Epiphany Prizes which “endeavour to encourage the production of feature films and television programs which are wholesome, uplifting, and inspirational and which result in a great increase in either man’s love of God or man’s understanding of God.” Gridlock was reportedly nominated for the 2008 awards but it didn’t win (The Valley of Light, a romantic drama, did).

So there’s definitely something about Gridlock which speaks to (at least some) Christians. I couldn’t find any details about how the episode earned its nomination (indeed, it’s not even listed among that year’s nominees). But I can make a stab at it. The New New York of Gridlock is a place where the population is trapped in a purgatorial existence, midway between a hot, dank hell filled with beasts and a glorious heavenly city. To help them cope, the drivers and passengers trapped on the highway periodically join in chorus to sing hymns. The Doctor commits the sin of lying (so what’s new?) and spends the rest of the episode seeking redemption. In the end, a mysterious being gives his life so that others may live.

The apparent paradox is that writer and showrunner Russell T Davies is an atheist. He’s not a writer who’s going to put pro-religious messages in his scripts. Quite the opposite. And yet he wrongfoots his audience by regularly using imagery which references the Bible. Such references pop up regularly in his Doctor Who work. Voyage of the Damned features angles which help the Doctor float to a higher floor, a la the Ascension. The Last of the Time Lords  features a whole world united in prayer for the Doctor. Gridlock, features not one, but two hymns.

But Davies, doesn’t see this referencing as evidence of a religious subtext. In DWM481, when discussing Voyage of the Damned he said: “I just think all that iconography is up for grabs. As an atheist, I don’t accord it any special power. So using an angel is no different to using The Robots of Death or The Poseidon Adventure or Annie Get Your Gun.”

So for RTD, the Bible is as a text like any other, to reference as and when he wants. Davies, I imagine, would reject the idea that Gridlock is pro-religion. And there is certainly evidence within the episode of it being anti-religion, most prominently that the faith of the highway dwellers has dulled them into an intellectual stupor, so they are no longer willing to ask the hard questions none of them want to face: where are the police? Why do they hear nothing substantial from the surface? What if they’ve been abandoned? (It’s reminiscent of its crabby forebear The Macra Terror in this respect. It also featured a populace too fixated to ask basic questions about the world around them.) Not to mention that it’s hard to imagine a story promoting traditional Christian views including two married lesbians and a dominatrix cat.

But the point in the episode where the highway folk’s faith is most keenly demonstrated – and criticised – is the singing of the hymn The Old Wooden Cross. Catkind driver Brannigan (Ardal O’Hanlon) rebukes the Doctor for stirring up trouble by asking. “You think you know us so well, Doctor. But we’re not abandoned. Not while we have each other.” And all the car dwellers we meet join in the song; there are no abstainers. Companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) is moved to tears by the profoundness of it and joins in. The Doctor (David Tennant) does not. He can see that faith is what’s holding this society back.

But even here we’re getting mixed messages. The Doctor’s reaction could be seen as a severe critique of religion, but the production acts against that conclusion. The power of that song, the reactions of the actors, the direction, the music… Everything points to that hymn being a strength of these people not a weakness. You can see how the confusion about where this story stands on religion emerges. The script indicates one thing, but an extra layer of meaning emerges through the production.

But it’s not just the gap between concept and realisation. It’s also that RTD regularly uses the accouterments of Christianity in his writing. As he said in DWM, he sees these as powerful images which he uses in a secular way, but this is clearly not how movieguide.org views them. Gridlock is after all, a story that ends with the world singing Abide With Me, and not in an ironic way, but in a genuinely reverent way. You can see how a pro-religion reading is possible, and as valid as an anti-religion reading.

Read Gridlock anyway you like, and people inevitably will. But it’s interesting that this episode has become the focus of Doctor Who‘s relationship with religion. Particularly as Davies points out in The Writer’s Tale “I didn’t write Gridlock thinking this is my take on religion. My foremost thought, and my principal job, was to write an entertaining drama about cats and humans stuck on a motorway.”

But if the author is truly dead, as the old post modernist credo goes, then Davies’ intentions are irrelevant. And thus his atheism is irrelevant. And whether he thinks using biblical imagery is as innocuous as using secular imagery is also irrelevant. It’s the reader that constructs meaning.

Personally, I think it’s great if a story like Gridlock can generate multiple and seemingly contradictory readings. How much better is that than something simple and didactic? It means that people will be debating this episode for years to come. That’s brilliant and exciting.

Now if you can all turn to page 181 in your hymn books, and join in…

LINK to The Idiot’s Lantern. Both have links to the Troughton era. Gridlock via giant crabs, and The Idiot’s Lantern through the casting of Margaret John who was in Fury From the Deep.

NEXT TIME… A dislike of the unlike. We’re heading all the way back to meet The Daleks.

Allusions, deadly sins and The Lazarus Experiment (2007)

laz1

I may have stumbled across the most random story ever.

Early on in The Lazarus Experiment, the Doctor (David Tennant) is on his way to drinks and canapes before the mad scientist kicks off, and notes that there’s always trouble when he wears a tuxedo. But companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) reckons he looks like James Bond, prompting some grudging approval from the Doctor. And with its madman millionaire, glamorous party, big shiny technology and spunky lady scientists (hey they must be scientists, right? They’re wearing lab coats), we are kind of in the same territory. Although I can’t think of a Bond villain who transformed into a bug eyed monster or a film where Bond defeated said villain with an organ solo.

It’s a shame that this story didn’t follow The Mutants, which is also about humanoid transformation into insectoid beast. There’s even a shot of a knobbly spine protruding from Professor (again, of which University?) Lazarus’s (Mark Gatiss) back, Solonian style. It fits in well with a number of other references to the Pertwee era, like reversing the polarity, and indeed, a formally dressed Doctor battling a suave villain. The Pert is sometimes labelled the James Bond of Doctors too, but I never saw a Bond movie with an old yellow banger instead of an Aston Martin and a Bea Arthur perm instead of short back and sides.

Then there are the references to TS Eliot, with the quoting of The Hollow Men and a murder in a cathedral. And the allusion to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And referencing Spinal Tap. And most prominently, the Gospel according to John. What do all these texts have in common? Well nothing, as far as I can tell. They’re all just window dressing.

Underneath all the metatextuality (oh yes, I did film studies at uni)The Lazarus Experiment has a straightforward plot. So simple I doubt it would get of first draft stage in these famously mind bending Moffat years. Lazarus has a machine which will restore his youth, but it malfunctions and turns him into a monster. Then the race is on to kill him before he kills again. This the Doctor does, but he’s not quiet dead and the race starts again. Next time the Doctor gets it right. It’s basic stuff, but it’s livened up with chases and explosions and general hi jinks.

Lazarus is one of a select group of villains who want a second go at life, or to massively extend their first one. President Borusa wanted immortality, Queen Xanxia chewed up planets to keep herself alive and Scaroth wanted to rewrite his own life. “You’ve thrown the dice once,” the Doctor says to that last one. “You don’t get a second throw.” He could have well said that to Lazarus too because the message is the same. Folks seeking immortality or eternal youth are bad news on Who. They want to pervert the natural order of things, by denying the inevitability of aging and dying. It’s a desire that the series won’t abide.

Lazarus manages to knock off a few deadly sins along the way. His greed for money is clear, as is his gluttony, as he wolfs down a plate of nibbles. He lusts after Tish (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and his pride definitely comes before his fall. And of course he murders a couple of folks. One of which, I’m right behind him on.

When Lazarus transforms into a slathering beast, the Doctor tries to warn the assembled thrill seekers that they’re in danger. But there’s one particularly sniffy woman – let’s call her Olive – who’s not having a bar of it. “The biggest danger here is choking on an olive!”, says Olive. Has there ever been a less convincing line? (Well, sure, but go with me) So irritating. I’m glad when she’s desiccated by Lazarus shortly after.

Then there’s Mr Saxon and Martha’s Mum and a snog with a septuagenarian and… Blimey, what does all this miscellany of random things mean? All those references, all these odd little moments make this story feel as patchwork as the Lazarus monster itself. If I was feeling harsh I’d say what this story lacks is a clear and consistent central theme. Again, think back to The Mutants. Not the best story ever, but at least with its critique of colonialism it’s about one thing, not a crazy mix of things. (That and it also does that thing where the story stops and restarts which you may recall I’m not a fan of.)

But true to form there’s another moment which is perfectly formed. Having snuck off to the cathedral, Lazarus is having a little quiet time. The Doctor confronts him, and they have a conversation about London during the Blitz. The Doctor says he was there. “You’re too young” dismisses Lazarus. “So are you” replies the Doctor. A lovely couple of lines, beautifully performed, that remind us that we’re watching two old men trapped inside young men’s bodies, and a quintessential Doctor Who moment. We’re miles away from James Bond.

Now, I promised you a female orgasm joke. It comes when the Doctor and Martha are trapped in Lazarus’s overloading gizmo. They are jammed up against each other when the Doctor pulls out his sonic screwdriver, gently buzzing to itself. ‘What are you going to do with that?’ ask Martha. ‘Improvise’ promises the Doctor and then sinks down to skirt level, a flirty look on his face. Well, we know from The Curse of Fatal Death that it has three settings.

Y’see? Random!

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘He was biding us time’, says Tish. Er, no he was buying you time.

LINK TO The Snowmen: in each a character falls to their death from a great height.

NEXT TIME: Did you wish really hard? Because it’s time to meet The Doctor’s Wife.