Tag Archives: series 4

Subversion, reassertion and Midnight (2008)

midnight

In a show as long running as Doctor Who, it’s inevitable you’re going to get episodes which are designed to challenge the series’ norms. Having it be the “monster of the week” every episode’s not creatively satisfying for production team or audience.

Hence, Midnight is one of those episodes which subverts everything the show usually does. In it, the Doctor (David Tennant) is stripped of his hero status, humiliated and helpless, his standard tricks made useless. The standard Doctor Who monster is replaced by an invisible, unknowable force; its origins and motives never explained. And human beings, so often championed in 21st century Who as being amazing, inspirational creatures capable of so much, are seen here to quickly descend into vindictive self-preservation. In doing so, they disprove everything the Doctor has ever said about their brilliance and potential.

Midnight sets out to be the antidote to the show’s usual optimism about humanity, but that determination to find the heroic in the everyday proves a hard mold to break. Among its cast of bickering humans, it zeros in on one who goes on a character arc which describes 21st Doctor Who’s most prominent theme: that the Doctor can inspire ordinary human beings to acts of great heroism. It does this by tracing that character’s Orpheus-like journey into the underworld of selfishness and fear, and subsequent emergence by using Doctor-like logic and courage to save the day.

That character is the Hostess (Rakie Ayola). Forgive me for retelling the plot at you for a bit, but I think what’s interesting is how writer Russell T Davies uses her as a structural component of the script. It’s the Hostess who pushes the plot along, ramps up the tension in specific steps and then does an about turn which saves the day. Whoever said plot and character are the same thing would find an instructive example in Midnight.

At the story’s start, the Hostess seems like a purely functional character. She’s there to welcome passengers aboard this pleasure trip and her demeanour tells us it’s not a job she enjoys. When the Doctor tries to engage her in cheery conversation, she looks at him with weary politeness, just wanting to get on with her job. But crucially, she notices the distinctiveness of his turn of phrase, that jaunty “allons-y”.

The other passengers are utterly ordinary people. A holidaying family, a professor (of Which University) and his protégé.  When their fellow passenger, the solitary Sky Sylvestry (Leslie Sharp) becomes possessed by the invisible creature, they act not like the courageous, noble humans of so many other Davies stories, but with fear and suspicion. The Doctor corrals them and the Hostess to the back of the ship and tries to convince them to simply keep their distance from Sky until the rescue ship arrives. As ingenious plans go, its practical, but not up to his usual standard.

Unfortunately, he can’t restrain the humans’ tendency to lash out. Davies ramps up the stakes in a series of reveals from the humans, each one punctuated by a dramatic sting in Murray Gold’s instrumental music. And the Hostess plays the pivotal role of influencer. She’s always the one to say what everyone else is thinking.

First, the Hostess says, “We should throw her out.” Cue sting!

It’s the first admission that at least one of them is thinking of a murderous pre-emptive strike on Sky. The Doctor just about manages to hose that one down, helped by the general belief that it’s not technically possible.

But then Dee Dee (Ayesha Antoine) says, “Yes we can,” and explains that a human jettison is possible, if done within 6 seconds. Sting!

And although Dee Dee makes the suggestion, it’s the Hostess who provides the practical method. “I wouldn’t risk the cabin door twice, but we’ve got that one,” she says, pointing out an alternative. “All we need to do is grab hold of her and throw her out.” The ethically questionable action which had been ruled out as impossible, is now feasible. The Doctor then calms debate down again, this time on the grounds of common humanity, asking if any one of them are prepared to become killers.

Again, the Hostess prompts the next development in this argument, saying “I’d do it.” Sting!

The cat is out of the bag again as the others admit that in order to save their own lives, they are prepared to commit murder. The Hostess falls back on her job description as justification, “It’s my job to see that this vessel is safe,” she says. The others panic and pile on. Having failed on grounds of practicality and moral values, the Doctor resorts to threats. He says if they want to throw Sky out, they’ll have to throw him out too.

Once more, it’s the Hostess who tells it like it is. “Okay,” she says. Sting!

And the mood shifts to questioning the Doctor. Who he is, why he’s on board, why he seems to relish the situation so. It’s here that we begin to sense the Doctor losing. We realise how flimsy the Doctor’s story must appear, when given the slightest scrutiny and without a companion by his side to back him up. When challenged about his assumed moral superiority and the right he has to take control of the situation, his response is desperate and arrogant.

“Because I’m clever,” he says, and that’s the moment where he loses everyone’s respect.

The Doctor usually wins by inspiring others to be their best, but here all he has done is alienate and antagonise them. They take offence, and when he tries to fob them off with his usual lazy pseudonym, John Smith, they don’t believe a word of it. At this point, there really is nothing to stop them from throwing him out of the ship. As the Hostess, points out, “He’s practically volunteered,” providing a moral justification for ejecting him. He’s a liar, a braggart and, by protecting Sky, a danger to them all.

When the creature finally captures the Doctor’s voice, his deconstruction becomes complete. He’s left paralysed and babbling on the floor. But former antagonists, the Hostess and Dee Dee, start to put two and two together.

While the others are preparing to throw the Doctor out, spurred on by the Sky/Creature, they start behaving like the Doctor. They notice the logical flaws in the creature’s story. They look objectively at the evidence. It’s a sudden about-face, but crucially it’s because they have both listened to what the Doctor has said. When the creature uses the Doctor’s favourite phrase, “allons-y,” the penny drops and the Hostess expels Sky and herself in the process.

You can see this self-sacrifice as being consistent with the Hostess’s sense of duty to “keep this vessel safe.” Or it could be seen as penance for her earlier suspicion of the Doctor and her stoking of tensions throughout the event. But I see it as the series snapping back into its basic shape. The story needs someone to be the Doctor, and if he’s incapacitated or all his usual strategies are neutralised as they are here, someone else will step up. His very presence will inspire scared, prejudiced humans to be better people, by using their intelligence to inspire acts of bravery and self-sacrifice.

In setting out to disprove Doctor Who’s fundamental tenet, Midnight actually reasserts it. While the rest of the cast are utterly broken at the story’s end, their relationships in tatters, their personal integrity destroyed – the Hostess proves once again why the Doctor loves humans so much. She just took the long way around.

LINK TO Genesis of the Daleks: TARDIS Wikia tells me that “This is the first televised story since Genesis of the Daleks in 1975 not to feature the TARDIS.” And talking of the long way around…

NEXT TIME… We’re off to Space Glasgow and we’re Hell Bent.

 

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Slapstick, semiotics and The Unicorn and the Wasp (2008)

uniwasp

In the middle of The Unicorn and the Wasp, there’s a standout scene where the Doctor (dishy David Tennant) is poisoned after drinking a spiked lemonade. Cue an outrageous slapstick scene where he staggers to the kitchen to ingest a miscellany of random ingredients to order to “stimulate the inhibited enzymes into reversal” (hmmm, sounds sciencey). First ginger beer, then walnuts, anchovies… all accompanied by a frantic game of charades with companion Donna (Flapper, not slapper, Catherine Tate). The punchline to this elaborate joke of a scene is the delivery of a smooch from Donna to shock the Doctor’s system into expelling the noxious substance from his body in the form of a foul gas. From his mouth.

In the middle of this sly and witty murder mystery, here is a moment of pure slapstick. The elaborate physicality, the overplayed reactions, the knocking of over of all sorts… in fact, this could be Doctor Who’s ultimate slapstick moment. (Sorry, that sounds like one of those cheap clip shows which periodically materialize to eat away your time. “Doctor Who’s top 5 ultimate slapstick moments!” an excited voice over would announce, over a tinny version of the theme music and miscellany of publicity photos of past Doctors, flying at the screen).

It doesn’t get mentioned much, but slapstick has a proud history in Doctor Who, despite 80s producer John Nathan-Turner’s much stated opinion that comedy in the series was about wit, never slapstick. He was true to word, at least for the first few years of his producership. Later on, he presided over Bannermen being pelted by jars of honey, milkshakes being poured over café goers heads and the Kandyman being immobilised with soft drink… so he must have got over that particular bias.

JN-T used to talk disdainfully about slapstick in order to differentiate his era from the show as produced by Graham Williams, which fan lore held that was altogether too silly. But slapstick had long been part of Doctor Who’s approach: The Romans had comedy fisticuffs, The Seeds of Death a dash through a hall of mirrors and the Doctor smothered in a deluge of foam. Even the po-faced Pertwee years found a few minutes to run over a tramp with a hovercraft.

It was Russell T Davies, though, who truly reveled in slapstick moments in Doctor Who, from the Doctor and Rose’s madcap dash from the Hoix in Love & Monsters, to the Doctor’s expulsion of radiation into his shoe in Smith and Jones. Davies was never afraid of making the show look silly, in the way which seemed to terrify Nathan-Turner (at least until he dropped green gunge over Balazar’s face in The Mysterious Planet). He knew that slapstick was a delightfully sweet treat within an otherwise dramatic episode.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is something different, though. It is, as Davies acknowledged in The Writer’s Tale, his first attempt at an all-out Doctor Who comedy and slapstick is only one of the tactics used, in a kind of mixed lolly bag of comic approaches. (Though for a comedy, it has some grim undertones. It does, after all, feature an alcoholic mother who loses both her sons on the same day. Fun times!).

For a start, there’s pastiche. This is not just a Doctor Who version of an Agatha Christie story. It a Doctor Who version of the television adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. You’ll know them as handsome Sunday night viewing: large casts, beautiful costumes, stunning locations and faithful recreations of times gone by. The story’s structure lifts familiar scenes from these adaptations – the dinner disrupted by murder, the gathering of suspects together for the big reveal. Even the filmic trappings of murder mysteries – flashbacks, spinning newspapers et al – are employed. At one stage, Donna’s eating popcorn like she’s watching the whole thing on TV. We know how she feels.

Then there are in-jokes. The constant quoting of Christie book titles. Donna’s pre-knowledge of Christie’s work. The deliberate evocations of, of all things, Cluedo. And the moment where Donna questions why Christie is experiencing events similar to her own plots. It’s a pleasant surprise when it turns out the butler didn’t do it. It’s so self-knowing it hurts, perhaps the most self-knowing the show has been since the infamous moment in Dragonfire (itself no stranger to slapstick), when a character quoted a Doctor Who academic book about the “semiotic thickness of a performed text.” Which in turn only added to Doctor Who’s semiotic thickness.

On top of all this, it’s just funny. Barely a scene goes by without a joke, verbal or visual. You can choose your own favourite, but mine’s how Davenport (Daniel Hill) sheepishly pokes his head out of Roger’s (Adam Rayner) bedroom door during the corridor scene. But that’s closely followed in my affections by:

DONNA: It’s a giant wasp.

DOCTOR: What do you mean, a giant wasp?

DONNA: I mean, a WASP that’s GIANT!

What I’m getting around to saying is that Doctor Who has often used comedic techniques in the past, just never before all at once. And thinking about this episode and how it mixes genres and comic forms made me ask: when does it stop being homage and start being spoof?

Doctor Who skirts this line occasionally. Other examples include Delta and the Bannermen, City of Death, The Gunfighters and The Feast of Steven. But I think spoofs (spooves?) prioritise the gags over telling a consistent, logical story. We’re yet to have the Doctor Who equivalent of Flying High for example (no, Time-Flight doesn’t count) because Doctor Who is never just a string of jokes. And The Unicorn and the Wasp is certainly more than a string of jokes; the weaving in of Christie’s story of lost love and self doubt gives the story a contrasting element of pathos.

But it’s an unusual experience watching this constantly self-referential story, so eager to invite us all to be in on its extended joke. Christie’s personal crisis aside, there’s barely a moment which isn’t winking conspiratorially at the viewer. It’s Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel, while saying to its audience, “Look! This is Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel! With a big slapstick routine and a WASP that’s GIANT!”

The semiotics of a performed text has never been so thick.

LINK TO The Angels Take Manhattan: Talking of genre… as this story takes up murder mystery, The Angels Take Manhattan is Doctor Who doing film noir.

NEXT TIME: Talking of self-knowing references… Even the sonic screwdriver won’t get us out of this one. It’s time for The Invasion of Time.

 

 

 

Words, pictures and Partners in Crime (2008)

vorlax

I found myself listening to the DVD commentary track on Partners in Crime. It features Execs Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner plus director James Strong and they make for jolly company. Davies is in ebullient form, gushing over various aspects of the production, explaining his creative choices with confidence and generally laughing at the sheer unlikeliness of it all. Gardner is equally fulsome, quick to address the episode’s technical faults but still clearly loving it none the less. Strong is a more reserved, but wry and happy to be the butt of good-hearted barbs about any directorial shortcomings.

Funnily enough, I’d also listened to the commentary track on the recently randomed Journey’s End. That one’s even more uproarious and features Davies, David Tennant and Catherine Tate. They keep it together well enough, until Tate abandons talking about Doctor Who and reveals news about her new kitten. (The name? I wouldn’t spoil it for you, but it brings the house down). Laughs galore. Hooray. Marvellous.

I mention all this because of the aura it gives off – of a program created by people who love what they do, who get along famously, and who have a heartily good time making it. These DVD commentaries are texts of their own, they suggest a working environment for late RTD era Who of grand behind-the-scene bonhomie. It all sounds like immense fun.

*****

A book I return to time and time again is The Writer’s Tale, by Davies and DWM feature writer Benjamin Cook. It’s a magnificent blow by blow account of Davies making Doctor Who from 2007-2010. The book’s two authors correspond via email and Davies is incredibly candid about the pressures involved in making the show. And although his humour and mischievousness still shine through, a lot of the book shows the melancholy and loneliness of creating a TV show, the size, scope and expectations of which are bewildering. It contrasts strongly with the green room party feel of those commentary tracks.

(Oh, that book. It’s addictive. On occasion, I’ll decide to just dip into quickly to check something or other. Two hours later I’m still reading it. Anything else scheduled gets abandoned. Honestly, it should come with a warning.)

The book starts with the production of series 4, and so Partners in Crime is featured heavily. We get to trace it from conception through the broadcast, and it’s one of those stories that went through many changes. It always featured a new companion, until Catherine Tate was wooed back. It was going to feature furry beasts called the Vorlax, before the squishy Adipose were conceived. It also featured Donna’s Dad played by Howard Attfield, right through to filming, until ill health forced him out and he was replaced by Bernard Cribbins as Wilf.

All this is recounted in The Writers’ Tale, including a number of production snafus which irritated Davies. When Penny (Verona Joseph) is found hiding in a toilet cubicle, she’s right next to the one in which Donna’s hiding, despite Davies’ specific instructions. When two of Miss Foster’s (Sarah Lancashire) guards are electrocuted, it’s through an archway, not a doorway as Davies conceived.

In the book, these niggles really get under Davies’ skin. But on the commentary track, they’re playfully brought up to needle at Strong. Clearly, time had soothed RTD’s crankiness by the time he’d got to record the commentary. But still we’re left with two contrasting views of the making of the series; one dominated by Davies’ jolly, gregarious public persona and one in The Writers’ Tale, which shows a private persona which is highly stressed, constantly working and constantly self-doubting. And not just on Partners in Crime,  but on all those stories up until The End of Time. The Writer’s Tale pulls back the curtain and shows how ridiculously hard it is to make Doctor Who, behind the cheerful facade of its makers.

I wonder if the Moff will put out a similar book when he leaves. What about one which was the collected emails between him and RTD? I bet that would be eye-opening. I’d have to write off a full month.

*****

The Writers’ Tale also reveals RTD to be a cartoonist of some considerable skill. The book is peppered with sketches illustrating scenes from scripts in development and used by Davies as a way of demonstrating his vision for the final product. This shows Davies as a writer who conceives his stories in images, a truly visual storyteller. This month, a new book Now We Are Six Hundred, is released, jam-packed with Davies’ cartoons.

And Partners in Crime has a cartoony style to it. The charmingly cute fat babies, the Adipose, are creations straight out of Pixar. The screwball style of the Warner Brothers cartoons is evident too; not just Miss Foster’s temporary levitation (complete with eyes bulging in surprise) before falling to her death, which as Davies says on the commentary is pure Wile E Coyote. But also the scene of the Doctor and Donna popping up from behind cubicles like meerkats, but always just missing each other. And Penny escaping tied to a chair.

Not to mention that when the Doctor and Donna give us the conversation behind two windows routine, it ends with Catherine Tate paused mid face pulling, like a frame taken from a Looney Toons classic.

There could have been more of it. Why not make these cartoon moments even more prominent? Have more cartoony set pieces? When the Doctor runs, his legs could rotate like crazed windmills. When knocked unconscious, stars and birds could circle around his head. Sounds too out there? I think as a madcap one off, it could be fun. Planet of the cartoons, Donna might say.

And if there was a ever a Doctor to pull it off, it’s surely Tennant, with his gangly limbs, big eyes and spiky hair, he comes ready to draw. I can already see anvils dropping on his head and pointy lumps growing from his skull. Or him temporarily suspended in mid-air, arms and legs outstretched in moments of surprise or anger. Eyeballs leaping out from his face. What’s up Doc, indeed.

T-t-t-that’s all, folks.

LINK TO The War Games: companions who will eventually have their memories of their time with the Doctor wiped.

NEXT TIME… is there any intelligent life here? We find out on The Mysterious Planet.

Party time, playthings and The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End (2008)

stolenearth

If you’re going to throw a party, you might as well invite all your friends. That’s what it feels like watching Russell T Davies’ Series Four finale, The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End. Multiple doctors, many companions, UNIT, Torchwood, the Daleks and Davros (Julian Bleach). Harriet Jones, former Prime Minister (you know who she is). K flippin’ 9.

It’s odd to precede this with Listen, so self contained and inward looking. This is the other end of the Who-ish spectrum. Listen is the work of a writer self-imposing restrictions on himself, in order to keep himself game fit. It’s about trying to find out what makes the Doctor tick. The Stolen Earth etc. is about bold, grandstanding, attention grabbing TV. It’s about making the biggest, showiest version of the show, while Listen the quietest, most enigmatic version.

Oddly enough though, both are about rewarding fans. The Stolen Earth overtly, because it brings back favourite characters, ties up loose ends to various plot points and even has a mid story regeneration. Listen is for fans too, but more subtly. It delves into the Doctor’s past, plays with his psyche and offers a glimpse into his childhood. One is Longleat, the other Lungbarrow.

I don’t really know what it was about Doctor Who in 2014 which required a Listen. But we know why Doctor Who in 2008 needed The Stolen Earth. It’s because after three years of successively bigger and grander series finales, Series Four’s closer had no choice but to top them all. The only option was to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. And that’s what we got: garish, sometimes absurd, but never quiet, Doctor Who.

*****

The Stolen Earth has an unusual structure. It starts where most Parts Ones end, with a full on invasion. There’s no time wasted in set up. We’re straight into it. This episode has a lot to get through, so there’s no time to waste.

Its main task is to get all the Doctor’s companions in place. It’s funny to see them all turn up once, like a reunion episode, but one made before any of the regulars have left. Actually, it’s a cross over show, combining the worlds of Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures, addressing that core audience of die hards who watch all three shows. The result is an episode with no supporting cast, just regulars. But there are so many of the buggers! The majority of the episode is spent introducing them all and putting them in touch with each other. It’s RTD at his most dextrous, but there’s little time to give any of them any meaningful character development.

They’re all trying to contact the Doctor (David Tennant, working double time), giving the impression that although they can handle Slitheen, Sontarans and gaseous alien nymphomaniacs when the real bad guys come flying in, they need to call in reinforcements. They eventually manage it, through some advanced technobabble, and the Doctor heads to Earth to find them all. Once there, time starts to run out and narrative convenience steps in. Rose (Billie Piper) and Jack (John Barrowman) suddenly manage to teleport directly to the Doctor with consummate ease and no data as to his whereabouts. But there’s no time to waste. We’ve got a regeneration to get to.

And it’s a brilliant one too – the Doctor shot down by a Dalek while racing to reunite with Rose. Then a cliffhanger with a regeneration in progress. Davies writes it precisely. He doesn’t end the episode without showing the Doctor regenerating, the full orange volcano, his handsome face engulfed. This is actually happening. It’s new Doctor time when you least expected it.

Bring in all the Daleks and companions you want. That regeneration’s the standout moment in the show. It’s the bit baby fans will be reminiscing about for years; the popping of a champagne cork at the end of a raucous shindig of an episode.

*****

Of course, if you’re going to get all your toys out of the box, you have to put them away neatly afterward. Davros and the Daleks? You can just blow them up. The Earth can be towed back home by the TARDIS, accompanied by a triumphant anthem. Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) and Jack can go back to their respective series. Martha (Freema Agyeman) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) tag along with Jack (though apparently they slip away and get unfeasibly married instead). The others prove more difficult propositions.

Donna becomes a super being, bathed in golden light, not so different from what happened to Rose. For a brief amount of time, she becomes a Donna Doctor hybrid, with his brains but retaining her sass. It’s a beguiling combination, a sort of streetwise Romana. A series of this Doctor/Companion combo would have been fun. But instead, she gets her memory wiped and sent back home to Mum. It’s presented as a death, the death of the woman Donna had become. Call me heartless, but it’s never struck me as the kick in the emotional guts it is sometimes presented as. It’s always been the disingenuous pay off of the ‘a companion’s gonna die’ gimmick, hinted at throughout the story. Again, not so different from what happened to Rose.

Rose, though, should by rights get to live happily ever after with the love of her life, brown suit Doctor. Instead, she gets dropped off on that bleak ol’ beach with blue suit Doctor, with the one heart and the regular aging. It’s a bittersweet ending, being left with a Doctor who will love her, but one who’ll always be a photocopy of the original. By any rational measure, she’s better off with this ersatz version, but then as the Doctor himself once said, love was never known for its rationality.

But I’ve got bad news for Miss Tyler. It’s never going to last. Sure this Doctor’s human, but she seems to have forgotten that he’s also half Donna. That’s gonna be a shock when she wakes up one morning and it’s all new flavour pringle, Brangelina and text me, text me. Oi, Earth girl! This party’s left one hell of a hangover.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: When the Daleks attack UNIT’s New York base, someone shouts, “Give me a Sit Rep right now!”. The DVD’s subtitles say, “Give me a cigarette right now!” Which is understandable in the circumstances.

LINK TO Listen: Peter Bennett, production manager on this story, produced that one.

 

NEXT TIME…: I am very, very cross with you! We’re off to meet The Girl Who Died.

Diversion, disruption and The Doctor’s Daughter (2008)

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What happened was this. Writer Stephen Greenhorne made a seemingly innocuous comment in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine, where he mentioned that the Doctor, as a character, never changes. Showrunner Russell T Davies read this and decided to challenge Greenhorne with an idea which would change the Doctor and see him develop as a character. His idea: to give him a daughter. And so here we are, with an episode designed to disrupt the Doctor’s cosy little world, and show us something new about him.

Looking back on it now, it’s a pleasing enough episode, if oddly structured, but it certainly hasn’t had that disruptive effect on the Doctor which Davies was aiming for. The addition of the Doctor’s daughter, Jenny (Georgia Moffett) may have proven a diverting development for 45 minutes or so, but at the end of the episode, she jets off into the night sky, never to be seen again. Did Davies plan for her to return, and be an ongoing fixture of the Doctor’s life – something which may well have changed the Doctor forever? It seems not – he brought back a panoply of companions for The Stolen Earth but not this game changing daughter he invented.

It’s in part because Jenny’s the Doctor’s offspring only in a sci-fi loophole kind of way. She’s created by some gene extrapolating whatsit designed to spit out new soldiers as fast as they’re killed. She’s comes with that get out clause; she’s only the Doctor’s daughter if we want to read it that way. Because of that caveat, and the fact that she’s never returned to the show, the whole idea feels gimmicky. A sensationalistic mid season gambit to combat the regular ratings sag around episode 6.

It’s one of a number of elements which gives The Doctor’s Daughter an air of not quite reaching its full potential. Consider also the fishy Hath who burble through mini tanks on rainbow coloured heads; a little too bizarre to sympathise with. Consider companion Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) brought along for the ride but relegated to an irrelevant subplot. Consider the central conceit that the warring parties on Messaline – the Hath and the belligerent humans – have been fighting a pointless war for only a week… it’s a neat twist, but it adds um, what exactly to the story?

The irony is that it was the casting of Georgia Moffett which had the real impact. If not on the Doctor’s life, then certainly on actor David Tennant’s, as before long the two were a couple and now have a family together.  It’s impossible to watch those closing scenes of the Doctor nursing Jenny in his arms and think not of Doctor and daughter, but husband and wife. Add this to the knowledge that Moffett is the actual daughter of previous Doctor Peter Davison (her opening line a self-referential “hello Dad”) and you have another of those stories which is impossible to watch without our fannish knowledge laying a couple of extra layers of meaning over the top.

*****

So Greenhorne’s Theory (as it now must ever be known) was actually proven right. The Doctor’s character is kind of story proof. The addition of unforeseen family members doesn’t change that. Perhaps we should have known; he’s had a granddaughter before and when she left, it wasn’t as if his character radically changed.

What, then, could be a game changer for the Doctor? I think the closest the series has come to this in the past is his exile to Earth during the Pertwee era. With his planetary travelling curtailed, a hint of frustration and deviousness crept back into his character, which could have developed into something quite dark. The Twin Dilemma too, was another point where something fundamental could have changed about the Doctor, given a more favourable set of circumstances.

Another potential pivot point for the Doctor was The Waters of Mars. Here, the Doctor develops a hubris based on his own powers and dallies with changing the timelines around to suit himself. It all goes wrong and the Doctor sees the error of his ways. But watching at the time, I wasn’t entirely that that was what had happened. I imagined an alternative version of The End of Time, with a Doctor whose newfound appetite for history changing had corrupted him, and made him the despotic ruler of a new twisted timeline, with the Master resurrected as the only being with a chance of stopping him.

What else might have a chance of disrupting the Doctor’s world? Could for instance, he incur a disability of some kind? What would, for instance, a blind Doctor be like for a couple of stories, or even a series? What about a Doctor in a wheelchair? Or what perhaps if he was robbed of his ability to regenerate? Or perhaps robbed of his knowledge of how to pilot the TARDIS, making every trip to a random destination, as per back in the old days.

Surely the big throw of the dice we’re waiting for – and now that Peter Capaldi is leaving it’s a live option again – is what if the Doctor became a woman? It seems we’ve been waiting for this for so long that it’s now become a bigger point of contention that it needs to be. A female Doctor seems increasingly inevitable – whether it will be 13 or not remains to be seen. But even if P-Cap regenerates into another man, that doesn’t necessarily mean a female Doctor couldn’t be experimented with. Surely in a series with Doctor-lite episodes and Christmas specials, there’s ample opportunity to try this out as a one-off and whet the audience’s appetite. Or perhaps a multi Doctor story where our guest Doctor’s played by a woman?

You want a big change to the Doctor’s character? Want to see how mutable our hero is? That’s the big one. It’s waiting in the wings, ready to be deployed at any moment. My bet is that would have a far more palpable impact than giving him a daughter, who’s not really his daughter and who we’ve forgotten about anyway.

Go on, Mr Chibnall. Give Greenhorne’s Theory a real test. I’m dying to see what happens.

LINK TO The Mind Robber: both have credited, but unrelated, Troughtons.

NEXT TIME: Your infantile behaviour is beyond a joke! We play a few games with The Celestial Toymaker.

Standing up, talking tough and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead (2008)

silence

If you like to watch the DVDs of classic Doctor Who stories with the commentary track on, you’ll have no doubt heard a phrase often used by actors and crew members, when looking back on their work from years ago. When they’re pleasantly surprised with the quality of the story, they’ll invariably say, “it still stands up today”. (I’m not sure what the opposite is. Maybe, “this story is sitting down in a comfy chair these days”. Or perhaps, “this story has completely collapsed”). So it was with some surprise that I thought to myself about Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead, ‘this still stands up today’. And I thought that in regard to River Song (Alex Kingston).

I think I’m right in saying that writer Steven Moffat conceived of this story before he knew he was taking over as showrunner. So he filled these episodes with references to future adventures for the Doctor (here, an energised David Tennant) and River, which we were yet to see. Sort of continuity references in reverse. Now that River’s story has come to an end (or has it?) in The Husbands of River Song, the deftness involved in pulling together all those references can be fully admired. Did Moffat have some super long term plan? Or did he make it all up as he went? Either way, it’s impressive stuff, which, as they say, still stands up today.

There’s the occasional booboo. River should really know that the Tennant Doctor has yet to experience the crash of the Byzantium because she experienced that with Matt Smith’s Doctor. But she did see the end of the universe with him in The Big Bang and she did see armies run away in A Good Man Goes to War. But The Husbands of River Song gives us the most poignant realisation of River’s future prophesies, with the Doctor (now Peter Capaldi) turning up in a new suit, giving her a screwdriver and spending a night with her on Darillium. It’s fan-satisfying fodder.

It’s more than just showing off though. Yes, it’s pleasing that it all fits together in a nice jigsaw, but I think the more impressive effect is that it changes how we now watch Silence in the Library etc. Because now what River’s says makes sense. On broadcast, River was telling us how heartbreaking it was to see a Doctor who didn’t recognise her and telling us how frustrating it was he didn’t automatically trust her. But it never really hit home. It couldn’t. Because we’d never seen it.

Now we understand her much better; when she accuses him of being young, we understand why, because she knows that Matt Smith’s Doctor lived for thousands of years. When she talks about that last night he showed up, we know what she’s talking about. In short, this story has an emotional kick it didn’t have in 2008, because just like the Doctor, we know and care about River nowadays.

Many familiar Moffatisms are on display here. People being saved as digital copies of themselves. Speechless monsters speaking through a human victim. Spooky astronauts. Children at the centre of the narrative. Paying homage to The Tomb of the Cybermen. And one that always catches my eye, the Doctor’s reliance on his reputation to scare the monsters away.

As the Doctor flags early in this story, he has no idea how to defeat the people-eating shadows which have infested the Library. “Daleks, aim for the eyestalk,” he says. “Sontarans, back of the neck. Vashta Nerada? Run. Just run.” This turns out to be true, as this is one alien menace he doesn’t manage to defeat.  Instead, he ends up negotiating a temporary pause in hostilities while he empties the hard drive of all its stored inmates.

To do so, he engineers a stand off with the Vashta Nerada. He tells them to let him do his thing, and doesn’t even make a threat. All he says is, “I’m the Doctor, and you’re in the biggest library in the universe. Look me up.” And that’s enough for the shadows to acquiesce.

Moffat lets the Doctor pull this trick twice more. In The Eleventh Hour, he tells the boggle eyed Atraxi, “Basically, run.” And the much repeated speech in The Pandorica Opens, where the Doctor stands on Stonehenge and dares his enemies to come and get him, is of a similar ilk. It’s a habit Moffat grows out of – even atones for – because by the time we get to A Good Man Goes to War, the cost of his hubris is humiliating defeat and he vows in The Wedding of River Song to go into hiding for a while, and become a smaller target.

This was a good decision, because the gambit that results in the monsters running away simply because the Doctor has a past reputation for beating monsters, is inherently anti-dramatic. If it worked on the Vashta Nerada, why wouldn’t it work every single time? Just flash an ID card at the beginning of each story and let the enemy scarper.

Worse than that, there’s something inherently bullying about it which is not at all like the Doctor. “Basically, run,” might be a cool line, but at heart, it’s a shorthand threat to do someone in. It’s, well, ugly. I’m glad he’s dropped the habit.

There have been a couple of times where I’ve said the last minute restarting of a story never works. Well, here comes Forest of the Dead to prove me wrong.

In a combination of crafty writing by Moffat and skillful direction by Euros Lyn, the story shows how it can work brilliantly. It happens when the Doctor and Donna (Catherine Tate, giving a funny and touching performance as her cyberspace self) turn around to leave the library, the camera focuses on River’s abandoned screwdriver and there’s a gentle voice over from Alex Kingston. All familiar signals that the story’s coming to an end. But then the Doctor races back, grabs the screwdriver and races back to the upload River and her mates to the data core. And as per another Moffatism, everybody lives.

Why does it work here, and not in those other examples? For a start, it happens really late in the story, not halfway through Part Four. Secondly, it comes as a surprise as there’s no hint that the story isn’t over. Finally, it uses every minute of screen time to tell the story, right up to those final moments where we see that even Donna’s fake children and Cal (Eve Newton) herself have been adopted by River. In short, it doesn’t muck around and gives us an ending more satisfying that the one we were already satisfied with.

Clever to the end, not only does this story still stand up, it’s standing taller than ever before, and that’s a rare thing indeed.

LINK TO The Fires of Pompeii. Same Doctor, companion and season. Easy!

NEXT TIME… This resolution may perhaps appear very bold and dangerous. We match wits with The Mind Robber.

Reliving history, telling the future and The Fires of Pompeii (2008)

firespompeii

Firstly, a spoiler. NEXT TIME… It’s Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead.

In that story, River says, “You know when you see a photograph of someone you know, but it’s from years before you knew them, and it’s like they’re not quite finished. They’re not done yet.” Watching The Fires of Pompeii gives us that experience twice, as it features both Karen Gillan and Peter Capaldi, pre- their days as TARDIS regulars.

Gillan is costumed and made-up to such an extent that you do have to squint a little to see Amy Pond lurking in a story she shouldn’t be in. But she’s there, although her posh accent and her earnest way of delivering her Soothsayer’s lines give us no hint of the companion she’ll become.

Capaldi’s presence, like Colin Baker’s in Arc of Infinity, is more distracting. There’s the Doctor, you keep thinking whenever he appears, although Capaldi’s a skilled enough actor to know that as a supporting character he’s there to complement, not steal focus from the main players. He gives a perfectly pitched turn as Caecillius, which is now basically ruined forever because he’s since become the Doctor. Admire your skillful performance, sir? I can’t! You’re the Doctor!

So The Fire of Pompeii’s job – to give us a complete fictional world to immerse ourselves in – keeps getting more and more difficult. These quirks of casting tear us away from the story. But it’s ironic that a story about prophesising the future, is doing so itself by showing us the show’s future stars. It should stop now though, or it’ll become completely unwatchable. Still… Phil Davies as the Master? Francesco Pandolfo as a companion? Tracey Childs as the Doctor?

It’s an odd mix, this story. On one hand, it’s relentlessly jokey, in a cheeky, post modernist way. Caecillius and his family have the 21st century family problems of a sitcom cast, all hungover layabout boys, and girls whose skirts outrage their father and so on.The Doctor (David Tennant) and Donna (Catherine Tate) wisecrack their way around the streets of Pompeii. Latin’s misheard as Welsh, and so hilariously on.

Showrunner Russell T Davies has a great love of the Asterix comic strip books by Goscinny and Uderzo, which take a jolly, action packed view of Roman occupied Gaul and you can see the influence clearly in Pompeii. Sly shoutouts to popular culture and modern mores are peppered through both. And when a character called Lucius Petrus Dextrus has a stone right arm, we’re not miles away from the likes of Vitalstatistix, Cacophonix and Getafix.

On the other hand, this is a story in which the Doctor and Donna decide to kill 20,000 people.

They do it in order to save the world, but it’s still a grim moment in a script which has been, up until then, busy cracking the funnies. Once they press the button, they run back through the town where terrified people are trying desperately to flee, but with little hope. The jokes have stopped, and instead we have the unsettling feeling of levity and tragedy sitting side by side.

This is reminiscent of the Doctor’s last visit to ancient Rome, back in ’64 (both AD and 1964) in The Romans. Back then, William Hartnell’s Doctor was shown to inadvertently inspire the Great Fire of Rome. “That fire had nothing to do with me. Well, a little bit,” says Tennant’s Doctor here and he’s right. Back then he was also partly responsible for another fiery disaster that destroyed an entire city and killed scores of people. And the whole affair was also a disconcerting mix of light and dark.

This is clearly what happens when the Doctor visits the ancient Roman empire. He should really steer clear of the whole place. If the TARDIS lands in ancient Gaul, Asterix should gulp down some of that magic potion of his and run a mile.

To get to the TARDIS and escape the devastation they’ve caused, the Doctor and Donna have to dash past Caecillius’s family, who are cowering in terror. It’s too much for Donna, who insists that the Doctor save them, if only them, from the volcano’s wrath. As ever, Donna’s humanising effect on the Doctor works, and the Doctor complies, although it means bending the laws of time.

It’s a nice touch, and saves the story from having an utterly depressing ending. It’s an twist on the ending of The Massacre where Hartnell’s Doctor and companion Steven escaped the slaughter of the Hugenots in Paris, but the Doctor didn’t attempt to save their newfound friend Anne Chaplet. There was a happy ending on that occasion too – we discover that Anne survived and sired a family line that eventually produced Dodo – but in that case it was pure chance. Here the Doctor deliberately intervenes, despite his initial instincts, and the story’s the better for it.

It’s also the start of a longer narrative for the Tenth Doctor, about him gradually loosening his commitment to the sanctity of history. It leads eventually to The Waters of Mars where he abandons it completely, and to the eleventh Doctor’s era, where his new mantra becomes ‘time can be rewritten’. This line of development continues into the twelfth Doctor’s tenure, and oddly enough, is also relevant to the dual casting of Peter Capaldi.

2015’s The Girl Who Died tackles the problem of Capaldi’s appearance in The Fires of Pompeii. In that adventure, the Doctor declares that he subconsciously chose Caecillius’ face for himself as a reminder. It’s a reminder that he saves people’s lives no matter what the rules say. With an angry cry, he turns on his heel and heads off to bring Ashildr back from the dead.

It’s all coincidental I assume, but there’s something neat about the fact that Capaldi’s performance in Pompeii is not just a continuity bump to smooth over, but a signal of an eventual shift in the Doctor’s character. He becomes a rule breaker, a master of time, not its servant and Capaldi’s face is the permanent expression of it. It’s one of those fortuitous instances when Doctor Who inadvertently forecasts its future and creates something new in the process.

Which leads us nicely to our next post on Silence in the Library. But as the saying goes, ‘spoilers’.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: lots of problems with tricky words like “sestertii”, “Appian Way”, “Allons y”, but also “underground” and unusually, “TARDIS”.

LINK TO Mawdryn Undead: truculent teenagers in both.