Tag Archives: series 5

Zeg, Tarrant and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (2010)

pando opens 2

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg! We had best get on with organising this alliance of alien races for our latest campaign against the Doctor.

ZEG: Oh, bugger it! How did we get lumbered with this, Dalek Tarrant? I’ve already been doing overtime on the redesign of our casings!

TARRANT: Yes, and look how well that went down, Zeg.

ZEG: It was going fine till they made me add that hump on the back.

TARRANT: Anyway… what we need is an alliance of alien badasses that will scare the etheric beam locators off anyone who dares to question the might of the Daleks!

ZEG: Don’t we already have an alliance, lying about the place somewhere?

TARRANT: We used to have one, but it was pissweak. Remember? There was that spiny faced guy…

ZEG: Oh that’s right. And the seaweed in a big robe.

TARRANT: That big black Christmas tree…

ZEG: And that guy covered in half globes! He looked ridiculous!

TARRANT: So none of those numpties get invited again.

ZEG: All right, who do you want for this lot then?

TARRANT: Well, the Nestene Consciousness, I suppose, ‘cos we’re going to need duplicates.

ZEG: Wait a minute, don’t we make duplicates?

TARRANT: Yes, though lately ours have tended to have eye stalks erupt from their foreheads at inappropriate moments.

ZEG: Fair enough, it’s a terrible giveaway. Who else have you got?

TARRANT: Um, the Cybermen?

ZEG: Ooh, that’s going to be totes awks.

TARRANT: Why do you say that, Dalek Zeg?

ZEG: A few years back they proposed an alliance to us. And we exterminated their arses.

TARRANT: They won’t care.

ZEG: They might!

TARRANT: No, they literally won’t care. They can’t, remember? That’s their whole thing.

ZEG: OK, who else you got?

TARRANT: The Sontarans?

ZEG: Ugh. I don’t get those fuckers. They’re supposed to completely obsessed with that “interminable war with the Rutans” TM. But then they’re always getting involved in these other hijinks. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll jump at the idea. Anything to avoid actually prosecuting that war they’re meant to be a part of.

TARRANT: Silurians?

ZEG: Those lizard things? That’s going to be pain. We’re going to have to wake them up. Have you got a big drill or a cyclotron or something? Then we’ll have to explain the whole thing to them… They’ll want to do their whole, “kill all the apes and reclaim our planet” routine… On the other hand, they’re on their home planet, so we won’t need to pay their per diems.

TARRANT: Judoon?

ZEG: Didn’t you already say them?

TARRANT: No, I said Sontarans.

ZEG: What’s the difference?

TARRANT: Not a great deal. But the Judoon have better boots.

ZEG: Oh they’re the police ones, aren’t they? I’m not sure they’re going to want to be in a kind of super group of villains.

TARRANT: Sycorax?

ZEG: Those guys in the big flying rock? Jeez, if you want. None of that voodoo bullshit though. Just let ‘em stand at the back and keep quiet.

TARRANT: The Hoix?

ZEG: The who?

TARRANT: The Weevils?

ZEG: You’re just making shit up now.

TARRANT: Terileptils, Zygons, Chelonians, Drahvins…

ZEG: The Drahvins? Oh come on, I draw the fucking line. A bunch of skinny chicks with elaborate eye make up? Fat lot of use they’ll be. Are they bringing their special magnetic net?

TARRANT: Dalek Zeg, I sense you are not approaching this task constructively.

ZEG: Give me a fucking break, Tarrant. The bloody Drahvins? What a bunch of b-listers. It’ll be the freaking Slitheen next.

TARRANT: Well, actually…

ZEG: Seriously? Why not call the Bandrils? I hear they’ve been free since about 1985. What about the Vardans? I bet we can get the Krotons for equity minimum. Ooh, no I’ve got it… the Monoids! With their cattle prods of doom!

TARRANT: If this is the sort of attitude you brought to the redesign of our casings Zeg, I can see how we ended up looking like giant M&Ms.

ZEG: What’s all this in aid of anyway?

TARRANT: Well, it appears that the Doctor is going to bring about the end of the Universe.

ZEG: Hey, that’s our job!

TARRANT: I know, right? So we’ve got to prevent him from being able to do it.

ZEG: How so?

TARRANT: We’ll lock him in a big box.

ZEG: Genius. Where is this box?

TARRANT: Stonehenge.

ZEG: Um, why?

TARRANT: Well, a scenario has been constructed from the memories of the Doctor’s companion.

ZEG: And she once went to Stonehenge?

TARRANT: No, she liked Roman occupied Britain when she was a kid, and it’s kind of close by. Plus, she likes the box thing, so there’s that as well.

ZEG: But wait a minute, we think this will ensure the Doctor shows up?

TARRANT: It’s a trap the Doctor cannot resist!

ZEG: It just sounds a bit complicated, Tarrant. If we want the Doctor to show up, why don’t we just do something evil? He’s turned up every other time we’ve done that. Without bloody fail!

TARRANT: Yeah, it would be simpler but we just don’t have anything on the drawing board that’s ready to go.

ZEG: OK, so what’s the plan once the Doctor is inevitably drawn to this devious trap?

TARRANT: Well, we shove him in the box.

ZEG: And then?

TARRANT: That’s it.

ZEG: Right. It suddenly goes from hugely complicated to sort of alarmingly simple. And what do all the other alliance members do?

TARRANT: Well the Nestene duplicates…

ZEG: Which we could at a pinch supply ourselves….

TARRANT: Well, they’ll actually put him in the box. Bit hard with the old plungers, y’see.

ZEG: OK, and everyone else?

TARRANT: They just sort of turn up for a gloat.

ZEG: Right. Tarrant, you remember the last time we had an alliance? Remember what our alliance members did then?

TARRANT: Um yeah. They stood around a big desk for a bit. Then they went to a conference and clapped idiosyncratically. Then some of them betrayed us and had to be exterminated. And then we got bored of them and locked them all up.

ZEG: And none of them were strictly speaking necessary either were they?

TARRANT: Not critically, no.

ZEG: Tarrant, this is the dumbest thing we have ever done.

TARRANT: Says the Dalek who painted us the united colours of Benetton.

ZEG: Fair enough. Shall we just exterminate each other now?

TARRANT: Agreed.

*Ka-shoom! Screen goes negative*

LINK TO The Claws of AxosPresumably the Axons are in this formidable bunch of alien badasses somewhere. (With thanks to Will Brooks

NEXT TIME: Mercy, just look at this place. We unearth The Tomb of the Cybermen.

 

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Toothless, spineless and The Vampires of Venice (2010)

vampires

In 2010, Doctor Who was catching up on the resurgent popularity of vampires. Twilight was, by this stage, a publishing and film phenomenon. True Blood was giving those who liked their vampire fiction a little less sanitised something to… oh god, I can’t stop it… get their teeth into. The Vampire Diaries was kicking around too, giving a more soapy take on bloodthirsty things. Fangs were on trend, so perhaps it was inevitable that new Who would get around to it.

Thing is, vampires bring with them two fundamental elements that Doctor Who has trouble with: blood and sex.

Blood is all but forbidden in new Who, even though it was, at times, splashed around liberally in the classic series. A family show in an early evening slot can’t show too much gore. Even today, blood is used sparingly and events which might produce some are cut around. When the 21st century version of the show had featured a bloodsucker – the carefully named Plasmavore in 2008’s Smith and Jonesthe fiend in question drank her victims’ blood with a straw pressed tight against a neck, and not a drop of red stuff was seen. So the monsters in The Vampires of Venice leave two discrete puncture marks on the skin, but little else. In a vampire story, the absence of blood in Doctor Who seems more conspicuous than ever.

The Saturnynes, however, are pointedly not vampires. They are hologram-disguised fish aliens. Which helps avoid the need to splash lots of blood around, but it does give this story a slight feel of bait and switch. C’mon, give us vampires in Venice! That’s what it said on the box and it sounded awesome! Don’t over complicate it with “they’re fishy aliens disguised as vampires for, um, some reason.” (See also writer Toby Whithouse’s next episode The God Complex for similarly unnecessary complications .)

So it’s a blood-lite affair, this ep. Sex, on the other hand, is much more familiar territory for Doctor Who. At least in a suggestive or metaphoric way, rather than through explicit demonstration. Sex, or at least sexiness, is all over The Vampire of Venice, and not just because it features a coterie of busty, spunky vampire chicks. Signora Rosanna Calvierri (Helen McCrory) is a flirty, seductive presence – not just with the Doctor (Matt Smith, with whom she goes as far as to suggest an, ahem, alliance) but also with her son. Not to mention that the whole plot is about her procuring wives for her fishy alien offspring.

Lust is coursing through everyone’s veins, like water through those Venetian canals. Our heroes aren’t immune, either; there’s the love triangle between Amy (Karen Gillan), Rory (Arthur Darvill) and the Doctor. It starts when the Doctor gate crashes Rory’s stag night to break the news that Amy kissed him. Tact and timing; these have never been his strong points.

In your standard vampire story, you’d expect a strong male lead to seduce young ladies into inappropriate dalliances. Here, we have to make do with the Doctor, but he is still a source of temptation for Amy. If there’s someone who might get her into trouble, of both the romantic variety and the old fashioned dangerous variety, it’s him. 

The Doctor’s reaction to Amy’s amour is (again with trademark subtlety) to take Rory aboard the TARDIS and hope that a romantic getaway will rekindle Amy’s affection for her fiance. But it’s difficult to stay focused on the boy next door when there’s this other boy, just over there with two hearts and a time machine. Rory’s already got some tough competition and that’s before the script does its best to emasculate him.

A quick detour. Back in 2010, one of my mates was watching Doctor Who ardently in order to ardently watch Karen Gillan. After The Vampires of Venice went out, he texted me indignantly. “Rory is a soggy biscuit,” he complained. “Amy should dump him and go out with me.” And he was right (about the first bit. Definitely not about the second.) Rory’s repeatedly presented as less than a man and certainly no romantic match for Amy.

The evidence? As soon as they land in Venice, the psychic paper calls him a eunuch. Later on, no-one thinks it’s feasible that he could pass himself off as Amy’s fiance; he has to pretend to be her brother. The Doctor has a torch which is bigger than Rory’s, cue dick joke. He never gets to properly challenge Amy about her infidelity. He gets into a fight with a vampire and is hopeless. And the story ends with him admitting that he’s Amy’s “boy”. (The Doctor too, but as he just got to heroically save the day, we know that’s not true.)

So in a vampire story, where sex is a powerful theme and constantly reinforced, Rory is a cuckold. A couple of randoms ago, I was talking about how romantic rivalry brought out Danny Pink’s manipulative side and yes, that was icky. But Rory’s tendency to be a doormat isn’t great either. It doesn’t seem like how a fiance would react to infidelity, nor does this kind of walkover seem like someone Amy would be attracted to.

Luckily, as his time on the TARDIS goes on, we discover that Rory is not the soggy biscuit my mate claimed he was. But I sometimes wonder where his character would have ended up, had they not cast someone as skilled as Darvill. He brought such charm and comic timing to the role, that I suspect he ended up more heavily featured than was first intended. If Darvill hadn’t been so compelling, perhaps Rory might have been ditched at the altar, with Amy flying off with her Time Lord temptation.

But this emasculation of Rory has an interesting effect; it slightly desexualises the whole episode. It stops a Doctor Who story about vampires getting too raunchy, by adding a few jokes and about the henpecked husband to be. It’s like the fish aliens not quite being vampires, which takes the edge off an otherwise bloody tale. It all adds up to a sense of this episode not quite going the distance, of being slightly apologetic for what it is. A vampire tale that’s not really… no, stop it! Can’t help it… full blooded.

LINK TO Full Circle: watery monsters who aren’t what they seem.

NEXT TIME: we brave some freak weather conditions for The Claws of Axos.

Mostly dead, slightly alive and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (2010)

You can’t kill the Doctor. Because he’ll just regenerate. So by extension, there’s no use threatening to kill him. The audience knows he’ll be back next episode. Threatening the Doctor is inherently undramatic. Might as well not even bother.

Companions though, are a different story. They are fair game. And the death of a companion can have great impact. Although the merits of Earthshock are much debated, it showed how killing off a companion could pack an emotional punch and shake up this otherwise cozy series. Its influence on new Who is palpable. Even now, the death of a companion is something the new show flirts with regularly.

Except that new Who is more Mindwarp than Earthshock. It is yet to have the guts to definitively kill off a companion. It prefers the faux death of companions. Just as Peri’s death turned out to be a convoluted lie, so nearly every 21st century companion has had some “get out of death free” card. Rose didn’t die at Canary Wharf, but escaped to a parallel world. Jack died and was resurrected, many times over. Donna didn’t die but had her memory erased. Amy died but was brought back to life by a big box. Clara died but her death was stalled by the Time Lords and now she rides again.

And Rory. Sweet deathless Rory. As the Silence says, he’s the man who dies and dies again. When he’s thinking of jumping off the side of a building in The Angels Take Manhattan, he’s even self aware enough to joke about it. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is only his third story as a companion, but he’s already died twice (a dream version of him fell to dust in Amy’s Choice). Another dream version of him will die in The Doctor’s Wife and he nearly carks it in The Curse of the Black Spot. He’s king of the faux death.

New Who has adopted the faux death as a recurring motif. This should really be no surprise in a series which, at its heart, has a lead character who cheats death over and over again through regeneration. Rory, Clara et al are echoes of that major theme.

The faux death differs between the RTD and Moffat eras, though. In Davies’ time as showrunner there were two ways to not really die. The first, a la Rose and Donna, was for the death to be explained off as a technicality (you’re officially dead on our Earth, but not on a parallel world. Your memory’s wiped, so that version of you is dead). It’s a narrative sleight of hand; lead your audience to draw a conclusion and then subvert their expectations. The second was the Jack Harkness model; to be granted Doctor-like powers of reincarnation to become the man who cannot die (series regulars becoming super beings being another Davies motif).

The Moffat way of death is to more blatantly disregard its finality. In Moffat’s Who death is temporary. People frequently come back from death. Amy died in The Pandorica Opens, but in the very next episode it’s explained that she’s only “mostly dead” (in a line so outrageous it can only be forgiven because it’s obviously cribbed from The Princess Bride, in which Billy Crystal’s character Miracle Max says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive”). Put her back in the Pandorica and she comes back to life.

Often people come back as digital copies of themselves, like River and Danny Pink. And then of course there’s the multiversions of Rory and the resurrected Clara. Osgood appears to die but that was a Zygon (I think) and even the Brigadier comes back as a Cyberman. Nardole’s resurrection from within a big robot is still to be fully explained.

So RTD pretends he’s going to kill someone, then doesn’t. The Moff kills them and then brings them back anyway. Moff’s approach can be summed up in Amy’s line from The Big Bang, “if you can remember someone, they can come back”. And it’s that message which bothers me the most.

Sorry to get all, “won’t somebody think of the children?” for a moment but should Doctor Who be telling the younger members of its audience the death of a loved one is temporary? The fact is that you can remember someone you’ve lost all you like, but they cannot come back.

Not that I think Doctor Who has the power to delude children into thinking the dead can be resurrected. But how inexpressibly sad for a child who has lost a friend or family member – perhaps one in the middle of the grieving process – to turn to their favourite show and be presented with the glib, almost crass, suggestion that if you remember someone, they can come back from the dead. I think that might sour a young viewer’s opinion of the show forever.

How to fix this? It’s back to the Earthshock model. When you kill someone, they stay dead. As painful as it is. There may not be much to recommend Time-Flight, but when Tegan and Nyssa plead with the Doctor to change events and save Adric’s life, he says no, that’s not possible. And when the two women meet a phantom of the dead boy later in the story, they rightly walk through it for the illusion that it is. It hurts, but the right message. Dead is dead.

So while The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood may once have packed a punch, it’s now difficult to take its best moment, Rory’s demise, seriously. Just as it was difficult to take Clara’s death in Face the Raven (about which more NEXT TIME) seriously. Because we know that in new Who, death doesn’t stop a companion’s story.

But it should. It really should.

LINK TO Inside the Spaceship. The TARDIS in trouble, again.

 

 

 

The wife, the girlfriend and The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone (2010).

timeangels1

Steel blue cool and looking a million bucks, The Time of Angels has a killer opening sequence. An elegant woman stalks the corridors of a space ship; black evening dress, red heels, dark glasses, mean little pistol in hand. She breaks into a vault and burns a message for the Doctor (Matt Smith) into a steel box. Then she outwits the guards, blows an airlock door and flies smack into the Doctor’s arms. She’s Doctor Who’s own femme fatale, River Song (Alex Kingston).

She’s as wild, witty and adventurous as the Doctor. She’s a spinoff series waiting to happen. Some people long for a female Doctor, but you might say we already have one in River. But there’s one way in which she differs from the Doctor – she clearly signals her interest in sex.

She’s a woman who stuns unwitting guards with a kiss. She makes no secret of her carnal interest in the Doctor. “You, me, handcuffs,” she says to the Doctor at one stage. “Must it always be this way?”. On another occasion, she’ll remark that “I’m quite the screamer. Now there’s a spoiler for you.” And she’s the first companion to refer to the Doctor, regularly, as “hot”.

She’s also a walking, talking plot device. Whenever she turns up, she’s a figure of mystery. The Time of Angels is only her second appearance, and as such, much time is devoted to speculation about who she is, why she was in prison, can she be trusted and so on. It’s one of those stories where the impact it has is reduced on rewatching because we now know the answers to all the questions it goes to such lengths to pose. Like River herself, we benefit from future knowledge. Spoilers, indeed.

The audience’s speculation about River is often given a mouthpiece. In Silence in the Library it was the Doctor who vocalised the questions about her, here it’s Amy (Karen Gillan). “Is she Mrs Doctor from the future?,” she asks the Doctor early on, and later on she’s made up her mind. “You’re so his wife,” she says to River. 

But then Amy has marriage on her mind.

*****

Like a TARDIS squeezed into a modestly sized bedroom, there’s an unexpected closing sequence appended to Flesh and Stone.  Amy has asked to be taken home. So the Doctor obliges and lands smack in her bedroom. There Amy admits that she’s supposed to be getting married in the morning, and in an act of last minute wild oats sowing, takes the opportunity to try to seduce the Doctor. “Have you ever fancied someone you shouldn’t?” Amy asked a Dalek-made android with a Scottish accent and a bomb in its chest in the last story (and it’s not even the weirdest part of that story). Anyway, Amy clearly has and it’s the Doctor. He’s her alternative to marital tedium.

Which is all leading to the point that this story positions the Doctor firmly as an object of desire for his two companions. One sees him as her periodic lover, the other as her clandestine final fling. They join a long line of female companions who since 2005 have held romantic feelings for the Doctor, but they are the first to openly express a desire to take him to bed.

Since 1996, the Doctor has gradually become sexualised. No longer is he the chaste figure of years past. He rarely expresses sexual desire himself (a recent notable exception was in Nightmare in Silver, where he declared Clara to be “a riddle wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too tight”.) And he quickly deflects Amy’s advances, so we’re left with River to remind us that beneath that alien exterior lies a red blooded man. The Doctor warms up over time. In The Time of Angels he still seems to gently resent River’s presence, but by the time we get to The Impossible Astronaut he’s openly flirting with her. By then, I think he’s quite comfortable, even proud of, his ability to attract women. (And it is exclusively women, and least to date)

It turns out that Amy is right, and River is indeed Mrs Doctor from the future (at least in one sense, although she actually married a lifesize replica of him, staffed by thousands of tiny people – and that’s not even the weirdest part of that story). It’s interesting that the Doctor’s long delayed sexual awakening needs to be couched in terms of marriage. Perhaps that makes it OK? And it does seem like a sexual attraction to River, whereas he seemed to have a more G-rated attraction to Rose. Amazing the difference a few little marriage vows can make. He’s an old-fashioned Time Lord at hearts.

River’s presence ends any speculation about whether the Doctor does it with girls. It even ends any sexual tension of the “will they ever get it on?” variety; she’s Mrs Doctor from the future, so they’ve already got it on. And we didn’t even notice.

It’s an example of how River and the Doctor’s sex life (really the same thing) are kept at a distance from us. She’s not a full-time companion, she comes and goes. So we never get to see what full time married life is like on board the TARDIS. Would they head off to bed after each adventure? Would there be squabbles about snoring and toilet seats left unclosed? It saddens me to say, probably. So while I’d love to see a run of Doctor/River stories, I’m also glad that domestic concerns remain out of view.

*****

The Doctor’s sexual experiences are a recurring theme in Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who. It was Moffat who introduced dancing as a euphemism for sex in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. (And oops… How does that episode end? Is his relationship with Rose really so chaste?) And in his next story, The Girl in the Fireplace, Reinette takes the Doctor for a quick dance between scenes. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that with Moffat in charge, we’ve seen the Doctor increasing positioned as a sexual being.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it does change the show. It does tie the Doctor a little more closely to those carnal human urges above which he’s always seemed to hover. And that Olympian detachment – in the company of many, many spunky ladies – appealed, I’d argue, to a lot of Doctor Who fans. To luckless teenage boys who couldn’t get a girl. To girls – and gays – who wanted to watch a hero who didn’t want to bed his leading lady.

All changed now. In The Time of Angels he has a wife and a girlfriend, the only female characters in the cast, and both want to do the timey-wimey with him. Watch out girls and too bad gays! This guy’s a stud.

In a bow tie.

LINK to: The Curse of Peladon. Three stories in a row, deadly statues.

NEXT TIME… Silly child, silly child! We take desperate measures against a powerful enemy in The Rescue.

Friendship, cleverness and The Lodger (2010)

lodger 2

Part One: Buddies

Here’s an unusual way to start a Random Whoness post:

NEXT TIME… Don’t look so worried. Fancy a cup of tea? It’s more Cyber hijinks in The Invasion.

My random Who generator sometimes throws up these inconveniences. Obviously, it would have been very helpful to talk about the obvious connections between The Wheel in Space and The Invasion. But here’s The Lodger stuck in the middle, and on first glance it has very little to do with its two Cyber bookends. But then there’s this:

LINK to The Wheel in Space and The Invasion: they all feature ‘buddies’. That is, the combinations of Troughton/Hines and Smith/Corden would fit right into a buddy comedy.

Your classic buddy film, comedy or otherwise, features two main characters, usually men and usually from different backgrounds, with contrasting approaches to problems, forced to work together and through which they form an oddball friendship. Think 48 Hours or Wayne’s World.  Doctor Who‘s  tendency to match the Doctor with a female companion tends to work against the buddy comedy format. But The Lodger is a genuine stab at it.

It’s a story of two men trying to understand each other’s worlds; Craig (James Corden) gradually unpicking the mysteries of his new lodger, and the Doctor (lanky, loping Matt Smith) trying to work out how to fit in what we would call a normal life. This last aspect becomes a theme of Smith’s tenure. It pops up again and again, notably in The Power of Three and The Doctor, The Widow etc. It’s a terrific conceit because when looked at objectively, the Doctor’s life is bewilderingly crazy. And when looked at objectively, most modern life is too. The Lodger seems to be saying the real world is just as mad as the Doctor’s, depending on your perspective.

It works nicely because both Corden and Smith can bring the funny. An important part of the buddy pairing is that there’s no straight man; both buddies are funny in their own different ways. We’re quite happy to watch either one of them on screen, although as viewers, we’re positioned to side with Corden and view the Doctor as a funny, alien fish out of water. And from the DVD extras we know that Corden and Smith are great mates, and that chemistry is evident on screen. It doesn’t seem that big a leap to imagine that Corden might have been persuaded to do a Catherine Tate, and go from one off guest star to ongoing companion for a year.

It would have been an interesting and innovative combination for Doctor Who. A year of buddy comedy. It would have really subverted the series norm or Doctor/Girl. We have to look right back to the Troughton years to find a similar pairing, and that’s the Doctor and Jamie. Like the Doctor and Craig, they are both funny, both capable of holding the audience’s attention and the chemistry between the actors is evident. And of course, all four act like overgrown teenagers, so in each pairing there’s a sense of men behaving badly.

So at its heart, this is a story of male friendship. But…

Part Two: Forehead slap.

Look, I love The Lodger. Everyone loves The Lodger. It’s like that cheery, boozy mate we all have. The one who hangs about a lot, cracks some jokes, gets into a few scrapes but is always up for a good time. He’s brilliant. But you don’t spend too long in this mate’s company. Look too closely, and the shine goes off him a bit.

Here’s what I mean. Part of what The Lodger does is show how the Doctor would react to adopting an everyday suburban life. And it turns out, he’s rubbish at it. Hilarity ensues. Oh that daffy old Doctor. He doesn’t know how much rent to pay. He doesn’t know what football is. He can’t remember why he’s called the Doctor.

But as funny as all this stuff is, we have to ignore much of what we know about the Doctor to make it work. We know he’s not this dumb. He’s spent loads of time in contemporary Britain – more than he spends anywhere else (he was exiled there once, remember). So he knows you don’t air kiss everyone you meet.  Of course he does. Just as he knows that screwdrivers don’t have on switches. He’s a genius, remember? No, on second thoughts, forget it. Because that would spoil the joke.

We also have to ignore the way a Doctor Who story normally works. The threat in this story is an alien spaceship lodged on top of Craig’s house, threatening to spin the TARDIS off into oblivion, with Amy inside it. What the Doctor would normally do is go upstairs and sort it out. Indeed, this is what Amy keeps telling him to do. But no, says the Doctor, it’s too dangerous, I don’t know what it is, I need more info. I’ll just build a wacky machine and talk to this cat instead. Because if I do the most logical thing and behave in the way I normally do, the story will end after about 10 minutes.

Part Three: Ooh that’s a bit clever

But you can’t stay mad at that loopy, boozy mate of yours for long, and so it is with The Lodger. Look at the way Craig is suddenly brought up to speed with everything he needs to know about the Doctor, the TARDIS and the situation at hand. Three big head butts. Funny, but saves precious minutes of dull exposition.

And there’s one particular bit of plotting which is inspired. It starts in the terrific scene where Craig is hoping for a canoodly night in with Sophie (the brilliant Daisy Haggard, see her be hilarious in Episodes if you haven’t already), but the Doctor has unwittingly gatecrashed (oh that silly old Doctor, and so on). ‘Six billion people’, he muses at one point. ‘Watching you two at work, I’m starting to wonder where they all come from’, which is pretty rich coming from the chief gooseberry.

Anyway, the Doctor then tricks Sophie into reconsidering her limited world view:

DOCTOR: Everybody’s got dreams, Sophie. Very few are going to achieve them, so why pretend?  Perhaps, in the whole wide universe, a call centre is about where you should be.

SOPHIE: Why are you saying that? That’s horrible.

DOCTOR: Is it true?

SOPHIE: Of course it’s not true. I’m not staying in a call centre all my life. I can do anything I want.

(The Doctor smiles at Sophie)

SOPHIE: Oh, yeah. Right. Oh, my God. Did you see what he just did?

A lovely piece of dialogue but it includes a hidden plot point which pays off when the Doctor, Craig and Sophie discover the spaceship upstairs. The ship is looking for a pilot, and luring innocent people to their deaths to test them out for the role. The Doctor realises it doesn’t want Craig and…

DOCTOR: It didn’t want Sophie before but now it does. What’s changed? I gave her the idea of leaving. It’s a machine that needs to leave. It wants people who want to escape.

And as preposterous as a spaceship dependent on its pilot wanting to leave is – or perhaps it’s just a little too thematically perfect to ring true – I think the Doctor planting the idea in Sophie’s mind which will eventually be the key to solving the mystery, is neat writing. And hiding it in a jokey, seemingly inconsequential scene is very skillful. Hidden in plain sight, to use a Moffatism.

That funny old mate of ours is a bit smart too. But then, that’s why we’re buddies.

LINK to… Oh, we’ve already done this bit.

NEXT TIME… Oh, we’ve already done this bit too.

Second nights, roads untaken and The Beast Below (2010)

beast below

Way back when talking about The Highlanders, I mentioned the odd appeal of a Doctor’s second story. It’s the place where we get our first true glimpse of what a new Doctor’s going to be like, without all the opening night hoopla of his first story. But we also get to see a few missteps and a few character traits which eventually get left on the cutting room floor.

I don’t think it’s any disrespect to say that Matt Smith took a while to step out of David Tennant’s shadow. Having been cast as a young, funny, handsome Doctor immediately after the last young, funny, handsome Doctor was a tough gig. And his early stories don’t help him. I don’t think there’s anything in The Beast Below (aka Song of the Space Whale) or the stories around it for Matt Smith to do that David Tennant couldn’t.

It seems hard for the series’ writers to shake Ten off, and for everyone – Smith included – to realise that the Eleventh Doctor’s goofiness, distractedness, childlike glee and his strange knack of being physically graceful and awkward simultaneously is what distinguishes him from the Tenth. In fact, I don’t think it’s until Vincent and the Doctor (aka Two Ginger Scots and the Doctor) that Smith’s Doctor is fully formed, although there are glimpses of it earlier. Perhaps the first peek of it is when he springs from Rory’s buck’s night cake (do buck’s nights have giant cakes? If so, I’ve been going to the wrong ones) in The Vampires of Venice (aka The Fish Girls of Croatia).

But back to Smith’s performance in The Beast Below. The sudden enthusiasm for small details, the tendency for unexpected physicality (leaping over benches for example) and the mix of levity and gravitas – so far so Tennanty.  But there are moments when you can begin to see Smith differentiating himself from his predecessor.

Take the moment where Amy asks if there are any other Time Lords. We can imagine how Tennant would have played this from a host of similar moments during his tenure.

AMY: So there are other Time Lords, yeah?

TENTH DOCTOR: (Suddenly stops. Face falls.) No. There were, but there aren’t. Just me now. (For a moment, looks like he might cry. Runs hand through hair, spiking it up further.) Long story. There was a bad day. Bad stuff happened. (Pause, determined now, the old soldier is back) And you know what? I’d love to forget it all, every last bit of it, but I don’t. (Anger in his voice, rising to a crescendo. A sudden flurry of activity.) Not ever! Because this is what I do, every time, every day, every second! This! Hold tight! (Turns, pauses, looks Amy in the eye, brings his voice down, adds a hint of glee.) We’re bringing down the government. (Hits the ‘protest’ button). Ooh, that’s done it! Oh yes!

Smith plays it much cooler. In his version, when the Time Lords are mentioned a pensive look comes over his face. He says the dialogue quietly, as if explaining it to himself as well as Amy. Almost as if remembering a bad dream. Then he gently ramps up towards the end of the speech, less showily than Tennant would have, before smacking that button with vigour.

There are other moments that don’t play as easily. Later in the episode, the Doctor is dismayed to learn that the humans are torturing Mr Astro Cetacean.  He lists the options open to him before erupting in an unexpected outburst:

DOCTOR: Look, three options. One, I let the Star Whale continue in unendurable agony for hundreds more years. Two, I kill everyone on this ship. Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor any more.

LIZ: There must be something we can do, some other way.

DOCTOR: Nobody talk to me. Nobody human has anything to say to me today!

(Quick aside: it’s interesting that writer Steven Moffat is already referencing the last day of the time war and the Doctor’s name, both of which will the focus of crucial episodes at the end of Smith’s tenure).

These sudden furious outbursts were stock in trade for the Tennant, but they become rarer and rarer for Smith. A notable exception is the tirade at Colonel Manton in A Good Man Goes to War (“…trying to get to me through the people I love“); on that occasion he even notes that getting angry is new to him. As the Eleventh Doctor develops, Smith prefers to play these moments with quiet menace or distain. And that suits the slippery, manipulative figure his Doctor becomes in later seasons. It’s not that Smith plays the star whale rant badly – quite the opposite – but it’s another remnant of a past era that he sheds.

Finally, there’s a moment of pure pig headed vindictiveness from the Doctor which doesn’t suit him at all.

AMY: I voted for this. Why would I do that?

DOCTOR: Because you knew if we stayed here, I’d be faced with an impossible choice. Humanity or the alien. You took it upon yourself to save me from that. And that was wrong. You don’t ever decide what I need to know.

AMY: I don’t even remember doing it.

DOCTOR: You did it. That’s what counts.

AMY: I’m… I’m sorry.

DOCTOR: Oh, I don’t care. When I’m done here, you’re going home.

Of course, it is completely unreasonable of the Doctor. As Amy points out, she doesn’t even remember doing it. And it’s an odd moment because it just doesn’t seem like a hanging offence or something that would particularly irk the Doctor. In short, it’s out of character. Although it does provide a dramatic moment after which Amy can redeem herself by working out the mystery of the star whale. But it feels contrived; as if providing that spur for Amy is its sole purpose, rather than being a natural thing for the Doctor to say.

And we never see another Eleventh Doctor moment like it. It’s one of those character roads which is partially ventured down but ultimately left unexplored. Charm, daffiness and childlike enthusiasm won out. Brooding, unpredictable grump was left behind. And his Doctor was all the better for it.

One last thing: the story ends with a Hartnellesque lead-in to the next episode. Winston Churchill rings the TARDIS phone and asks for the Doctor’s help, the silhouette of a Dalek sliding into view on a nearby wall. It’s a moment which echoes our first, partial glimpse of a Dalek sucker back in 1963. But it’s also one which indicates how much Doctor Who has changed since then.

The Doctor was once an edgy anti-hero lost in time and space, with no control over his capricious machine. Now he’s a superhero, getting phone calls for help from his celebrity historical friends. It’s another big shift. And this one, I’m not so sure is for the better.

LINK to Nightmare of Eden. Both are set on spaceships and have creatures that are not what they seem. Hmm, that will have to do!

NEXT TIME… There’s a bit of a brouhaha at the Space Defence Station in The Android Invasion.

 

New faces, dabbling and The Eleventh Hour (2010)

eleventh

Our first new doctor story, and appropriate too as our next one, starring Peter Capaldi, is not too far off. Soon showrunner Steven Moffat will get a chance to create a second incarnation.  For now though, The Eleventh Hour is his definitive statement on how to introduce a new Doctor.

There are enough new Doctor stories now to recognise a few types. Power of the Daleks and Robot are of the “new guy has to prove himself” type.  Castrovalva and Time and the Rani are of the “new guy has to find himself” type. The Christmas Invasion gave us something new: the “Doctor’s out of action and everything goes pear shaped” type.

The Eleventh Hour‘s type is one it shares with Spearhead from Space and the Paul McGann TV movie, and it’s “the man who fell to earth”. In each case, the Doctor travelling alone, ends up on earth and convalescing post regeneration when faced with an alien threat to the earth. With a few incidental details, such as pairing up with a young woman and stealing his clothes from a hospital.

In each case, the Doctor is a mystery for his young lady friend to solve. We, the audience, discover this new Doctor at the same time as Amy/Liz/Grace. Unlike other regenerations, in these instances the companions are also newcomers; they know less about the Doctor than the audience do, which is part of the fun. The audience knows the Doctor’s an alien, that he’s eccentric and that he’s always a bit nutty post-regeneration. So part of the joy of these stories is watching the companion’s journey from outsider to one of us.

But in The Eleventh Hour, the companion is never really going to be one of us. She’s also a mystery for the Doctor to solve. In this case, it’s redhead bombshell Amy Pond (Karen Gillan). Amy’s a girl to like to dress up and pretend; her identity is fluid. Is she a police woman or a nurse or a nun? “I dabble”, she confesses at one point. Turns out she’s a kissogram (as sexy an occupation as chaste old Doctor Who can manage. Lord knows what she would have been if this was a Torchwood story.) And later on we’ll discover she’s left one costume at home ask ourselves, hang on – is she a bride too? Amy’s inability to settle on any one thing – or to be any one thing – will turn out to be an ongoing theme throughout her time with the Doctor, and it starts here.

Despite the questions about who she really is, The Eleventh Hour positions Amy firmly as our point of reference. Through her eyes, We see Matt Smith’s Doctor climing out of his damaged TARDIS.  We stick with her as she waits years for him to return (as opposed to seeing him pilot the TARDIS in the gaps). She’s with us when we see the Doctor changing into his new costume (as she refuses to divert her gaze). And when the new TARDIS console room is revealed, we see it with Amy. The Doctor is Amy’s point of fascination, and ours too.

And the Doctor himself? Well, he’s daffy. Tennant’s Doctor was funny, but highly competent. This Doctor walks into trees. He eats fish fingers and custard. His sonic burns out. He’s generally a bit rubbish at everyday, ordinary things. But he turns out to be brilliant at the extraordinary things, such as repelling alien incursions. I think that’s the main trick a new Doctor has to pull off: he has to be different from his predecessors, but familiar enough to be recognisably the Doctor. It’s the second part of that trick which that other new Doctor story The Twin Dilemma arguably fails to pull off.

So this story feels a lot like what’s gone before; it likeably plays to type. It’s plot feels a bit familiar too: alien criminal hides on earth and even nastier alien authorities catch up with it and don’t care if humans get caught in the cross fire.  That harks back to Smith and Jones (hey and that has a hospital and a new companion too!) and throws forward to A Town Called Mercy. And when the Doctor frightens the Atraxi off using nothing more than his reputation (and a handy clips reel) it’s a trick Moffat’s used before in Forest of the Dead, and will use again in The Pandorica Opens.

So The Eleventh Hour is a story that has us looking back and looking forward. In that sense, it’s pretty much everything you could want from the new Doctor’s first day.

LINKS to Frontier in Space: a tricky one, but how’s this… Both contain flashbacks sequences which include a Sea Devil. (Which itself is a bit confusing in The Eleventh Hour, because aren’t they meant to be clips of invading aliens which the Doctor has protected the earth from? That’s not really a Sea Devil’s job description.)

NEXT TIME: You have the mouth of a prattling jackanapes… Our random tour next take us to The Caves of Androzani.