Tag Archives: series 6

Epics, epilogue and The War Games (1969)

wargames

Welcome to The War Games, Doctor Who’s longest story.

(I’ll just let that sit there and rankle for a bit.)

No, you say, what about The Trial of a Time Lord? Four separate narratives, I say.

All right, you say, but what about The Daleks’ Master Plan? You can’t deny that one! Well, I can in fact. As you’ll see if we ever get around to randoming it, I’d say Master Plan’s episodic format makes it feel like a series of mini-stories rather than one big one.

That leaves The War Games with the series’ longest contained narrative. And unlike those other contenders, it feels like one epic story, told over a record-breaking 9 episodes.

(I know, I’m being particularly annoying today.)

I say 9 episodes because that’s how long it takes to wrap up the main story. Episode Ten, is an epilogue and although it contains some bonus sneering and running around with the War Lord (Philip Madoc), it’s dealing with something else entirely. It’s a one episode story about the Doctor’s final come uppance with the Time Lords. And of course, it changes the show forever.

*****

The War Games has been mightily re-evaluated in recent years. It started with a glowing review of the DVD by Gary Gillatt in DWM. Even co-writer Terrance Dicks, who had for years proffered a line that the story began and ended well but flagged in the middle, was convinced. So its reputation has grown to the point where it’s now our favourite 60s story, according to DWM’s 50th anniversary poll.

For me, it’s too patchy to be consistently satisfying. Those early episodes set in faux World War One are terrific though. The design work is excellent, the characters are believable and well portrayed and director David Maloney brings out a pervading sense of menace. Then there’s the unsettling sight of our cozy TARDIS team of silly old Doctor (the Trought, on form), funny old Jamie (the Fraze) and fussy old Zoe (the, um, Pads) suddenly dropped into shocking danger, the threat of violent death all around them. All capped off with that brilliant cliffhanger to Episode Two, when time zones collide and Roman soldiers come charging out of nowhere at our friends.

(Quick aside: Terence Bayler plays Major Barrington, and his resemblance to Rowan Atkinson is remarkable. It made me wonder is The War Games may have been an influence on Blackadder Goes Forth. Sound a bit far fetched? Well, think about Barrington/Blackadder and Carstairs/George at the front, and Smythe/Melchett and Ransom/Darling back safe behind lines at the Chateau.)

But after those initial episodes, the action is shared between the earthly war zones and the bad guys’ HQ. Their base has some fetching op art on the walls but is otherwise so much plywood and vac formed plastic. Clearly, the budget has run out. Billowing plastic sheets replace walls. Characters hide from others behind the scantest of flats, and their pursuers must pretend not to see them. Walls are too expensive, black drapes must suffice. Spaceships are controlled by play magnets. It’s resourceful work when faced with limited dough, but it can’t help but look tacky.

The insubstantial-ness of the sets isn’t helped by the fairly basic melodrama played out within them. Mostly, it’s middle management sniping between the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) and the Security Chief (James Bree). Both resentful and suspicious of the other, it’s the sort of thing that’s difficult to sustain over multiple episodes. Brayshaw goes for fruity, beard stroking villainy, while Bree opts for the nasal voiced bitching of a career civil servant. Both keep threatening to take their slowly escalating dispute to their team leader. It feels like we’re watching the petty irritations of a pair of office co-workers, promoted beyond their competence. “What a stupid fool you are. You’ve jammed the photocopier again!” “Well, don’t think I didn’t see you stealing Sue from Accounts’ soy milk from the fridge. What a stupid fool you are!”

Dicks and co-writer Malcolm Hulke have over four hours to fill with material, but never get around to giving these “aliens” a name or a planet of origin. We have to assume then that it’s a deliberate move to keep them non-descript. Because they don’t have individual names either. They are either named after their occupations (War Lord, Security Chief and Scientist) or after the fictional characters they take on when in the time zones (General Smythe, Von Weich). In fact, the only thing which distinguishes them is their predisposition for eyewear, either the sinister pebble glasses type or the wacky sunvisor type.

So we switch regularly from the relatively realistic settings of historical wars to this b-grade world of flimsy sets, generically named people and unlikely spectacles. But it’s in the latter that we find the Doctor’s greatest secret hiding. Because the War Chief is not actually one of this colourless race. (You can tell by the way he’s wearing a hood ornament on a big chain around his neck). In fact, he’s a Time Lord, one of the Doctor’s kith. “You may have changed your appearance, but I know who you are,” he purrs, when the two finally get some time alone in Episode Eight. And so Dicks and Hulke set about dismantling the framework the show has been built on over the last six years.

*****

We know in hindsight that The War Games was designed to kick the show into a new format. But it feels like it could also have been the end of the show, if that’s what was required. It doesn’t feel definitive. It’s having a bet each way. That last shot of a decapitated Doctor spinning helplessly through to oblivion – quite disturbing, really – is basically saying, we don’t know if there’s a future for this show.

Patrick Troughton picks up on this uncertainty. He plays his Doctor not with the restless energy of an eternal runaway, but with the resignation of a fugitive who knows the game is up. It’s his companions who have to spur him on to try to evade his Time Lord judges. Throughout these ten episodes, Troughton never stops looking for the lighter moment amongst all the gloom. He never stops trying to energise a flagging moment. But still, he’s a Time Lord at the end of his time.

Episode Ten – that little recognised one parter – gives him some excellent material to work with though. In a scene destined for clip show after clip show, he rails against the inactivity of his fellow Time Lords. While some old monster costumes are wheeled out to wobble in front of black curtains, the Doctor stakes his claim. There are some corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things. They must be fought, not merely observed. There’s still a need for him to be a funny, brave, compassionate hero. It might be doubtful about the future, but this story is very clearly saying, there’s still a need for Doctor Who.

LINK to The Girl Who DiedAliens disguised as earthly warriors.

NEXT TIME… The fat just walks away. We take on some Partners in Crime.

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Complexity, comprehension and The God Complex (2011)

There’s a hotel somewhere and in each of the rooms is someone’s worst nightmare. How about that for a central premise, eh? That is pure Doctor Who. Really, as a starting point, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Then you’ve got to justify it in some way that makes it sound reasonably feasible in an outlandish sci-fi kind of way. So the hotel is not a hotel, it’s a disguised spaceship. The spaceship is home to a creature which feeds off fear, and so it kidnaps people, confronts them with their worst nightmare and consumes all that tasty fear. So far, so Doctor Who.

But then it all gets a bit complicated.

It turns out it’s not actually fear that the creature wants to feast on. What happens is that when confronted with their deadliest fear, the victims fall back on their most deeply held faith, and that’s the food for the creature. It’s a faith eater, not a fear eater.

The moment this revelation is revealed is where The God Complex pivots on expectations. Problem is, it’s just a little too tricksy. I think that’s the moment where the audience is meant to go, “oh, of course! It all makes sense now!” In fact, it’s the moment where I suspect they go, “um, come again?”

And that’s a shame because when that happens, it’s stops being a quintessential Doctor Who idea. It suddenly got too complicated. It went a step too far. Before then – you’re trapped in a labyrinthine hotel with a creature that feeds off your terror! – it was easy-to-grasp, creepy stuff. Then it gained an unnecessarily complicated add on.

Perhaps that’s what makes an utterly Who-ish idea. Bizarre and compelling but able to be summed up in a sentence.

*****

Some people’s faiths are easier to comprehend than others. Clever clogs Rita (Amara Karan) is a Muslim, so we get that. Hipster nerd Howie (Dimitri Leonidas) is a conspiracy theorist. Well, I suppose it’s belief system of sorts, if you squint. Tivolian moleman Gibbis (David Walliams) comes from a species with an almost fetishistic desire to be invaded. That’s an amusing character trait, sure, but do we get to call that a faith?

Companion Amy (Karen Gillan) has faith in the Doctor (Matt Smith), to such an extent that a climax will need to be borrowed from The Curse of Fenric to help her break it and defeat the monster of the week. Oddly enough, the Doctor – or rather waiting for him to turn up – is also her greatest fear. Which gives us some insight into how obsessed she’s become with him. Luckily this seems to be something husband Rory (Arthur Darvill) has grown accustomed to, so isn’t too bothered by.

Rory doesn’t get a scary room of his own. As the Doctor points out, this is because he isn’t particularly religious. Which is all well and good, but are we saying Rory doesn’t believe in anything? If we can pass Gibbis’ love for domination off as faith, surely there must be something inside Rory which he might fall back on in a moment of great crisis. One would have thought perhaps his faith in Amy, although after we’ve seen how Doctor obsessed her subconscious is, maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t seem to have any deeply held connection to her. Poor faithless Rory. For such a caring, passionate guy, it just doesn’t seem right that he’s an empty, soulless shell.

*****

David Walliams is some late season stunt casting which is interesting in and of itself. Firstly, it’s a brave decision to cover the story’s major guest star in a mole mask, even if his distinctive profile is recognisable under all that latex. Still, it’s kind of apt given Walliams’ Little Britain pedigree for inhabiting outlandish categories. And since Tom Baker added his cheeky baritone to that series and outed Walliams and co-conspirator Matt Lucas as Who-heads (as if The Web of Caves wasn’t enough), it was probably inevitable that they’d end up on the show. And now Lucas is a regular on the show. Is Walliams envious? Surely a Whoside reunion is inevitable.  Little Gallifrey, perhaps.

Another name which jumps off the cast list is Spencer Wilding. It’s a name tailor made for an actor, so it’s just as well this 6’ 7” man mountain gave up kick boxing. Wilding plays the Minotaur, and is such a giant that when the series employs him, they can do enormous brutish creatures without resorting to CGI. The God Complex is the first of three big badasses he plays for the series (he’s also the Wooden King and Ice Warrior Skaldak) over a short period of time, so that oversize aliens briefly become a series motif. It’s the Spencer Wilding era, as I think we should call it. (Also fact fans, he’s the second actor to play both a minotaur in Doctor Who and be the body of Darth Vader.)

We’re also at the beginning of another mini-tenure, the Nick Hurran era. Hurran’s directorial style – full of inventive, suspenseful shots and rapid cutting between shots – marks him out as a standout talent in this and his other episode this season, The Girl Who Waited. He quickly becomes the go to guy for the series’ showcase episodes and gets the prime gig of directing the 50th anniversary special. This is a director the show’s invested in. Where’s he gone, I wonder? Some shrewd and handsome fellow once asked Steven Moffat in DWM why directors seem not to linger on the show for longer than a few episodes. “Bloody good question,” Moffat replied, so we might surmise that even the Boss doesn’t know where he’s hiding.

*****

There are so many minotaurs already in Doctor Who and so it doesn’t entirely surprise when The God Complex feels obliged to shout out to one them. “Distant cousin of the Nimon,” the Doctor name drops. “They descend on planets and set themselves up as gods to be worshipped.” Despite the fact that The Horns of Nimon is a story the series is rarely in a rush to remember, that does sound like a classic Doctor Who idea.

“Which is fine, until the inhabitants get all secular and advanced enough to build bonkers prisons,” the Doctor goes on. And once again that crystal clear idea gets muddied by over complication. This episode. It just doesn’t know when to stop.

LINK TO Deep Breath: The God Complex  has pictures of Silurians and Sontarans, and Deep Breath  has Vastra and Strax.

NEXT TIME: Anyone for tennis? Failing that, how about The Stones of Blood?

Press Gang, continuity errors and The Curse of the Black Spot (2011)

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So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Filmic references, monsters drawn from mythology, more misfiring technology and more errant children.

But bugger all that for a moment. Let’s talk about Press Gang.

Press Gang was Steven Moffat’s first TV series which ran from 1989 to 1993 on ITV. Co-created with his father Bill Moffat, it’s a fascinating piece of work. Its premise was the ongoing adventures of a group of plucky teenagers running a school newspaper. It was smart, witty, engaging and utterly implausible.

This student newspaper (the Junior Gazette) was run as a faux newsroom, as regimented as any professional paper. There was a design department and sales department, and the students seemed to work on this paper with a zeal which many paid journos wouldn’t bother with. They seemed to work all hours too and the stories they chased often were real world news stories, rather than what was on the school canteen menu that week.

Despite the craziness of the premise, it was compelling viewing. The cohort of characters Moffat created to staff this teenage fantasy of a news room, were stellar. Acerbic editor Lynda Day (Julia Sawalha) had a stormy romantic relationship with leather jacket wearing bad boy Spike (Dexter Fletcher). There was sensible journalist type Sarah (Kelda Holmes), spunky designer type Julie (Lucy Benjamin – replaced midway through by the even spunkier Gabrielle Anwar), token black guy Frazz (Mmoloki Christie) and comedy capitalist Colin (Paul Reynolds). And Lee Ross, who plays the Boatswain in Black Spot was Kenny, perpetual nice guy, long suffering dogsbody to Lynda and sometimes songwriter and would be pop star. It was that kind of show.

It had the rarest of things: a cast of teenagers who were great actors. They created a terrific chemistry which each other and were engaging to watch. The plots were always just this side of believability, but the dialogue was snappy and quotable. Even in this early work, you can see that this is Moffat’s greatest strength. He was doing Sorkin before we knew who Sorkin was. Looking back on it, there’s a touch of The West Wing’s structure in Press Gang, with that small group of workers in strict hierarchy, fighting the good fight and who always manage to say the smartest, funniest thing at exactly the right time.

The Press Gang exposed dodgy businesses, abusive parents and all sorts of nogoodniks. A couple of episodes stick in the mind. There was the one where Spike was threatening to go back to his native America, and Lynda made a show of pushing him away, before slyly pickpocketing his passport in the final frame. There was the with Professor X (Michael Jayston) a deluded actor replaying his glory days as a childrens’ sci-fi hero. But the stand out episodes made up a two part story, about a masked gunman hijacking the newsroom, with all our favourite characters inside.

Press Gang often played with narrative form, and in this two-parter, we started at the funeral of one of the newsroom staff. With the gunman’s siege played in flashback, Moffat gradually allowed us to see each of the regular cast, one by one at the funeral. As each appeared, it was a signal that they must have survived the siege, thus whittling down the possibilities of which of our favourites had bitten the dust. I won’t spoil the outcome for you if you haven’t seen it, because its ingenious and worth experiencing fresh. But suffice to say, it’s got a corker of a resolution.

In those tense scenes in the newsroom, where our heroes seek to reason with, outsmart and overcome their assailant, fiery Lynda at one stage launches into one of her trademark verbal rants. Earlier in the episode, we’d learned that she’d gotten in trouble from some boring adult figure of authority for throwing an ashtray in frustration with someone. The more she shouts at the gunman, the more it seems he might crack and shoot her. Colin, who has been injured, whispers something to Kenny, and Kenny says to Lynda, ‘don’t throw the ashtray’. Lynda gets the message and calms down. What a great line. I’ve always carried that with me. Even now, there are days when I remember that sage advice, and think to myself, don’t throw the ashtray.

It’s surprising more Press Gang alumni haven’t made it onto Doctor Who (although Julia Sawalha was in that other Curse, the one of Fatal Death.  And Lucy Benjamin was in Mawdryn Undead, oddly enough.) But hey, maybe there’s still time as Moff still has a series in him. My vote’s for Gabrielle Anwar. Please Moff? Please?

*****

The other piece of Lee Ross related interest in Black Spot is that he’s at the centre of a massive continuity error. Not the sort of continuity error that Doctor Who fans care about, like when someone mispronounces Metebelis or Atlantis is destroyed three times. Instead it’s the sort of continuity error normal people care about, like when someone’s wearing an enormous coloured scarf outside the TARDIS, then walks into the control room and the scarf’s hanging on a hatstand (apologies, The Invasion of Time).

Midway through this episode, Lee Ross’s character, the swarvy Boatswain just disappears. One moment he’s barricaded in the magazine with the Ponds (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill), and has suffered a slight cut, which will be enough for the mysterious Siren (Lily Cole) to emerge from something shiny and take him. The next, he’s gone and that’s the last we see of him until the episode’s end when we find he and the rest of the crew have survived the Siren’s ministrations. This story forgets to show us what happened in between.

It’s apparently a mistake made in the editing; and it says something about the pace of making Doctor Who that even with all resources the thrown at it, inevitably booboos slip in. But it’s one of a couple of important moments which are left off screen, such as when Rory nearly drowns having fallen overboard and we don’t see any of it. Then there’s the bit near where the Siren comes for pirate Mulligan (Michael Begley) and all we see is her ethereal light shining out from under a door. I suspect these aren’t stuff ups, as much as budget easing expediencies.

So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Monsters and errant children and all that. And I want to talk about trivia involving Lee Ross. This blog’s not called randomwhoness for nothin’ y’know.

LINK TO Four To Doomsday: in both, the TARDIS is absconded with mid story.

NEXT TIME: With the big sad eyes and the robot dog? It’s time for a School Reunion.

Anything, everything and The Wedding of River Song (2011)

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“All of history is happening at once,” says Caesar Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) at the top of this season finale, and in a short space of time, the viewers know exactly how he feels. The Wedding of River Song (hereafter referred to by its pleasing acronym TWORS) throws everything it’s got at us. And it throws it all at once. To bamboozling effect.

It starts with a lengthy recap from other adventures in this narratively complex season, retelling how the Doctor (a foreboding Matt Smith) is trying to evade his forthcoming death on the shore of Lake Silencio in Utah. Once the viewer has this under their belt, it’s on to the pre-credit sequence, showing a London with all of history combined into a mix-and-match selection of ancient Rome, World War 2, Silurian pre-history and modern day. The viewer is expected to keep up as Caesar Churchill notices that the date and time never changes, and calls for his imprisoned Soothsayer. Who turns out to be the Doctor, recently returned from a visit to Whiskeron.

Then post-credits, there’s another pre-credits sequence. In short shrift, the Doctor robs a dying Dalek of information about the Silence. Which leads him to a bar to meet Gideon Vanderleur (Niall Grieg Fulton), an envoy of the Silence. Except it’s not Gideon, it’s the time travelling, shapeshifting robot the Teselecta, seen previously in Let’s Kill Hitler. The Teselecta’s Captain Carter (Richard Dillane) leads the Doctor to another bloke, Gantok (Rondo Haxton) and a deadly game of chess. This leads him to the Seventh Transept, and the talking head of Dorium Maldovar (Simon Fisher-Becker) who at last can give the Doctor the information he needs to start the story.

And by now, we’re about five minutes in.

That’s indicative of both the pace and the general feel of TWORS. This is a story which makes few concessions for the casual or inattentive viewer.  From here it’s a rapid fire trip (via steam train) from strange London to strange Cairo, taking in the Silence, altered versions of Amy and Rory (Gillan and Darvill), Madam Kovarian (Frances Barber) and terminating in the wedding of River Song (Alex Kingston) itself, and the history rewriting impact it has. Plus a sidetrip to mourn the death of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s full on, and there’s a lot to get through.

We’ve been here before, when talking about AGMGTW (acronym mad, I am). This is a season of  Doctor Who which expects a lot of its viewers. And it doesn’t let up; TWORS is artillery barrage Doctor Who.

*****

I suspect that how much you enjoy an episode like TWORS  or AGMGTW  or even TNOTD depends on how satisfied you are with an episode which is less a distinct Doctor Who story and more a string of explanations, wrapping up storylines from a season’s overarching story arc. Which in turn, I think, depends on how interested you are in that story arc.

Assuming you are interested in this arc, I think your enjoyment then depends on how satisfied you are with those explanations. If you’re pleasantly surprised at the answers, and don’t feel cheated or that the producers have copped out, then I think these sort of loose-end-tying-up episodes are just fine. And TWORS does an admirable job of just that, plus dropping plenty of intriguing hints for next season’s big story arc.

Personally, I find these sort of episodes enjoyable, but less than the sum of their parts. I enjoy having a few mysteries resolved, but I rarely revisit them after an initial viewing. In fact, I sometimes struggle to recall what the story’s about. And I think that’s because it’s not about anything. Instead, it’s about everything, all at once.

*****

But if any of this bothers you, don’t let it. Thing is, this story never really happened. Nor did TNOTD. Nor did all of Series 5, as far as I can work out. Because in these narratives, things can go to all levels of doolally, and then be reversed by some timey wimey conceit.

Luckily though, our heroes retain their memories of these adventures that never were. It’s a peculiarly Moffaty piece of logic. And it creates an odd effect for the viewer where two sorts of realities exist simultaneously; we always seem to be in a permanent state where events did/didn’t happen. Some people have wondered if because River married a giant robotic replica of the Doctor and not the man himself, are the two actually married? Never mind that, surely because history was changed, the wedding never actually took place (and least this wedding. They could have tried again some other time)?

But it also leads to the feeling that you can never actually trust a Moffat storyline. When Clara recently bought the farm in FTR, I don’t think there was any regular viewer who thought there was no ‘get out of death free card’. We’re so used to time being rewritten and people coming back from the dead that the series has lost some of its ability to shock. Nothing’s a matter of life and death any more, just a matter of time.

*****

So… A bewildering, unlikely set of events. A strange melange of imagery. A bit of romance, a bit of a punch up, old friends and old enemies popping up everywhere. And at the end of it all, no-one can quite remember what exactly happened.

All in all, just like any other wedding.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: at one point ‘timey wimey’ becomes ‘tiny winy’. Clearly a subtitler not versed in Moffatese.

LINK TO TCH. Both are Matt Smith stories of course, but also Mark Gatiss wrote one and pseudonymously appears in the other.

NEXT TIME: You had juan chanze, mah frend, juan chanze! Direct from a relay station in Nigeria, it’s TEOTW.

Fans, fiction and A Good Man Goes to War (2011)

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Imagine if you pitched this story to any publisher of Who fiction, such as Big Finish or BBC Books or DWM‘s comic strip: The Doctor’s companions have had time vortex-exposed sex and conceived a baby. The baby is kidnapped by a squadron of religious soldiers, so the Doctor gathers an army of allies including Silurians, Sontarans and Judoon to help him rescue her. The Cybermen also make an appearance, as do Captain Avery and Danny Boy, and there are continuity references to nearly every story in the last year and a half. As it turns out, the baby is actually another of the Doctor’s companions who’ll grow up to be his a. assassin and b. wife. (Actually, the whole thing’s beginning to sound like a Virgin New Adventure. Let’s travel back to 1991 and pitch it to them.)

Surely, no one would touch it with a barge pole. Because it reads like fan fiction. A fan writing a story for other fans. And as fan lore tells us, that’s bad. That’s about the worst thing you can do if you’re writing Doctor Who. Apart from question marks on collars or not taking things seriously enough.

(A quick recap on how we got to the idea that writing for a fan-based audience is bad. 1980s Who saw some liberal reuse of old monsters, characters and costumes from stock. Internal references to previous eras peppered the stories. Initially a popular approach, it was overused and the production team were criticised for trying to please fans rather than entertain a general audience. And since then Doctor Who fans have taken a dim view of writers trying to please them. Don’t try to please us!, they say. Think of the general public!’)

But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that A Good Man Goes to War is written for folk with an advanced level of knowledge of Doctor Who since the beginning of series 5, some 18 months previous. In short, it’s written for fans. But who are fans nowadays?

Steven Moffat has argued that everyone’s a Doctor Who fan these days; that the general audience do tend to watch most episodes of the show so you can tell detailed narratives without worrying that they’ll be alienated and switch channels. If he’s right, then Joe Public would have been completely comfortable with the complicated story arc of Series Six, in which A Good Man etc is thoroughly embedded.

But if he’s wrong, then I think A Good Man would be greatly perplexing to less dedicated viewers. To offer an episode as dense with references to previous storylines as this must be very offputting at least and bewildering at best. How else can we imagine a casual viewer reacting to dialogue like this?

DOCTOR: It’s all running about, sexy fish vampires and blowing up stuff. And Rory wasn’t even there at the beginning. Then he was dead, then he didn’t exist, then he was plastic. Then I had to reboot the whole universe. Long story. So, technically the first time they were on the TARDIS together in this version of reality, was on their…
VASTRA: On their what?
DOCTOR: On their wedding night.

Get your head around that, casual viewers! Even the pay off to this story – the revelation that River is Amy and Rory’s daughter – only works if you’re invested in the series long story arc, and you care about such things. Otherwise, what does it matter who’s daughter River is? Why would anyone but a fan care?

*****

Old Who had its share of continuity heavy storylines, allegedly written with fans in mind. The granddaddy of them all was Attack of the Cybermen, so let’s pick on it as an example.

Broadcast in 1985, it contained various plot threads from stories as distant as 1966’s The Tenth Planet, 1967’s The Tomb of the Cybermen and 1968’s The Invasion. It has since been roundly criticised for expecting casual viewers to know detailed plot points from stories broadcast almost 20 years previously. Although I suspect that for a casual viewer, it can be enjoyed on a simple Doctor vs the Monsters level, in a way that A Good Man cannot because the very purpose of the Doctor’s actions in the latter story needs to be seen in context.

But we should remember that Attack of the Cybermen and its nostalgic 1980s stablemates existed in a very different space than modern day Doctor Who. With no repeat screenings, few home video releases and VCRs an expensive luxury, it was rare even in the mid 80s to see a story more than once. Under those circumstances, the less you distracted your audience with needless continuity the better. Modern Doctor Who is designed for multiple viewings – indeed, it rewards them – and its audience is better equipped to follow long, complex narratives. And if Moffat pulls Sontarans, Judoon and Danny Boy’s spitfire out of his toybox, it could well be that they cut down the costs of creating new prosthetics and CGI assets.

My point is not that A Good Man is this century’s Attack of the Cybermen, although they are both, to my mind, equally obsessed with fannish continuity. It’s more that fandom’s go-to criticism of writing for fans is outdated, because as new Who continually shows, you can write Doctor Who for fans and still make compelling TV. And if we accept that, perhaps we can look at some of those 80s continuity fests in a new light. Perhaps, we can learn to stop worrying and love the fanwank.

Anyway, enough of this. I’ve got another story to pitch to the powers that be. It’s going to be a match up between the Master and the Cybermen. They’ll walk down the steps of St Paul’s like in The Invasion! And UNIT will be in it. And the Brigadier will come back from the dead… Not too much continuity, do you think?

What do you mean it’s been done?

LINK to: Terror of the Vervoids: in both we meet friends of the Doctor from unseen adventures (Travers in Vervoids and all sorts of people in A Good Man).

NEXT TIME… When you’ve quite finished grinning like a Cheshire Cat, we’ll delve into The Mind of Evil.

Mark making, rule breaking and A Christmas Carol (2010)

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Christmas specials come in two varieties: the ones which are frothy but insubstantial festive fun, and those which are big event episodes, containing new Doctors, new companions, regenerations et al. On first glance, 2010’s A Christmas Carol looks like it falls into the first category, and true, it does lack a cast change or a Minogue calibre guest star which would single it out as event TV. But actually, I’d say it’s a deceptively important episode which stamps showrunner Steven Moffat’s mark on the series and changes it forever. A big call! Let’s see if I can back it up.

We have to start with the previous story, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. In this story, the Doctor (tweedy Matt Smith) reboots the universe, seemingly reversing the events of Series 5 and returning us to the fictional equivalent of a restore point. It is the most potent embodiment of a phrase that almost becomes Moffat’s mission statement for Doctor Who: time can be re-written. He effectively rewinds the tape to an earlier part of the story and starts again. As the climax to a story or story arc, it’s a trick to which Doctor Who had never before resorted. It’s the ‘Superman reverse time’ trick.

A Christmas Carol goes a step further. It has long been one of Doctor Who‘s immutable rules that the Doctor cannot change history, and by inference, that he can’t change anyone’s personal history. In The Runaway Bride, he says “I couldn’t go back on someone’s personal timeline.” And in Smith and Jones he says “Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden.” Luckily he remembers to add “Except for cheap tricks”, because A Christmas Carol sets out to break all those rules.

It happens to Kazran Sardick, our stand-in Scrooge, played with nuanced gravitas by Michael Gambon. In order to change Sardick’s mind on the subject of saving a crashing spacecraft full of passengers (which includes companions Amy and Rory), the Doctor embarks on an elaborate plan to change his personal history and make him a more compassionate person.

He starts by travelling back in time to when Kazran was a boy (Laurence Belcher). As he does so, Sardick Snr realises his memories are changing, and he turns to the camera, aghast. For the first time in Doctor Who, someone’s time is being rewritten.

(I get to watch each Christmas special with a terrific bunch of friends, all Who heads, but of the casual, new series loving variety, not a die hard like me. I remember watching A Christmas Carol and gasping at that particular moment, recognising what a ground breaking moment it was for the series. My viewing buddies, of course, didn’t bat an eyelid.)

From there on, the Doctor ducks and dives backwards and forwards across the old miser’s timeline. Like all children in Doctor Who, Sardick junior is entranced by Matt Smith’s playful Doctor. He arrives to babysit the kid, and before long they’re both being threatened by a giant flying shark. It’s the start of a great friendship between Time Lord and lonely boy; in each other, they find inquisitive, adventure seeking kindred spirits.

A litany of successive Christmas eve adventures in the TARDIS ensue, with beautiful songstress Abigail (Katherine Jenkins) in tow. She’s been liberated from one of Kazran’s father’s cryogenic pods for people who haven’t paid their bills. The boy loves all this, and loves the Doctor. He even starts wearing a bow tie.

As Sardick grows up to become a young man (Danny Horn), he and Abigail inevitably fall in love. But eventually Abigail fesses up to her new beau that she’s terminally ill and has only days to live. Days she’s been frittering away on Christmas Eve trips in the TARDIS, and now there’s but one left. Sardick grows resentful of the Doctor, who has given him a taste of a happy life, but who has also been gradually ruining it. He dismisses the Doctor with the ultimate insult – he’s grown bored – and disgustedly removes his bow tie.

(And it’s here that we must pause and acknowledge the story’s greatest logical flaw. Abigail looks to be the picture of health. And even if she’s not, why does neither she nor Sardick say anything to the Doctor, who can presumably whisk her away to the future where medical science would surely have found a cure for her? It certainly can’t be for fear of disrupting her timeline. That horse has most definitely bolted.)

So Sardick grows up old and bitter, despite the Doctor’s remedial efforts on his timeline. And as this is a retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we all know what has to happen next: the Doctor will show him a haunting vision of his future. Even Sardick knows it: “Fine. Do it. Show me. I’ll die cold, alone and afraid. Of course I will. We all do. What difference does showing me make?” he snarls. But Moffat pulls off a beautiful conjuring trick, again breaking all the rules. He brings Sardick’s childhood version to the future see what he’ll grow into. A perfect reversal of audience expectations.

And the twists keep coming. Having established that the machine which could save the crashing spaceship will only work for Sardick, the Doctor’s shocked to find he’s changed the misanthrope too much, and the machine no longer recognises him. So Sardick’s forced to thaw out his lady love for the last day of her life, and the scene is set for something of a plotting marvel, in which every one of the story’s elements: Doctor, Sardick, Abigail, singing, shark, screwdriver and crashing spaceship combine to bring the story to a close. That’s hard to do, but Moffat makes it look easy.

But for me, being an old Who stick in the mud, the Doctor’s new found willingness to run roughshod over time, initially spoiled A Christmas Carol for me. It seemed to me to be almost cheating – not playing by the rules. In Series 5 and now this Christmas special, Moffat had set out a bold and revolutionary agenda for the series. You bet time can be rewritten, and now so had Doctor Who.

But since that first viewing, I’ve come to admire much about this episode, not just the intricate plotting I’ve traced through here. But also the quickfire rapidity of the jokes; it’s one of Moffat’s wittiest scripts. The pacy direction of Toby Haynes and the moody cinematography of Stephan Pehrsson. A towering performance by Gambon, who seems to effortlessly wring maximum meaning from every word and gesture. And Matt Smith at the peak of his powers, being both adolescent and ancient simultaneously. All this, and a marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a thing of beauty and a reminder that sometimes to tell a story which is new and compelling, sometimes you need to break all the rules.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: one of my favourite lines gets mangled when the Doctor’s Christmas instruction to a young boy, “stay off the naughty list” becomes the meaningless “stay off the naughtyness”.

LINK TO Planet of Giants. In both the TARDIS doors open mid flight. But luckily this time, the “space pressure” doesn’t cause the Ship to miniaturise. Phew!

NEXT TIME… You unspeakable abomination! We conduct The Sontaran Experiment.

Love, legend and The Doctor’s Wife (2011)

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It’s all in the title really: The Doctor’s Wife. Not in its metaphorical description of this episode. But in its celebration of fandom.

As hard core Whoheads know, The Doctor’s Wife is a title too ridiculous to be real. 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner wrote it on a list of forthcoming stories on a white board in the Doctor Who production office in an attempt to sniff out a suspected spy. It’s a false title and it’s pure JN-T; outrageous and provocative, guaranteed to get headlines. Was the mole unearthed? I don’t think so, but the deed was done and it has since gone down in Whostory.

To the not-we, perhaps the title reminds them of The Time Traveler’s Wife, a rather soppy sci-fi romance novel by Audrey Niffenegger, which didn’t do much for me, but which seems to have had an ongoing impact on showrunner Steven Moffat (a copy of the book even made a cameo appearance in Dark Water). But Moffat and writer Neil Gaiman are Who fans down to their question marked socks and would know the Who legend behind the title. They know the fannish jolt of excitement it would generate. It sends an immediate signal to other Doctor Who fans: this one’s for you.

And so it is that before the opening titles have rolled, we get a visit from a prop last seen in 1969’s The War Games. (Funny the little things that stick in your mind. The War Games is 10 episodes long and has made a lasting impression on Doctor Who in many ways. But that tiny little moment where the Doctor boxes up a telepathic message in a self assembling cube is one of its most potent images. It seems deserving of its encore in The Doctor’s Wife.)

Having received the message box, the Doctor (Matt Smith, at his best here, I think) sets course for another universe, and is deleting TARDIS rooms to generate the extra thrust needed. Instantly, we’re recalling Season 18 with its visit to the pocket universe of e-space and its gloomy finale Logopolis. The fourth Doctor’s curtain call is keenly referenced here, when companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) lose themselves in the TARDIS corridors, just like their predecessor Tegan. And like Tegan, they discover the TARDIS can quickly switch from being a place of refuge to one of peril.

When the TARDIS lands, it’s on an asteroid, and more specifically, in a junkyard. A police box in a junkyard; a salute to one of the show’s most iconic images. And this planet is a graveyard for spaceships, and is inhabited by beings sewn together from the remains of others. It’s The Brain of Morbius via 100,000 BC.

But amongst all this nostalgic throwbackery is a startlingly novel idea, that the TARDIS takes on humanoid form. It does this when its ‘soul’ is poured into the body of woman, Idris (a brilliant turn from Suranne Jones, with more than a little of a dishevelled Helena Bonham-Carter about her). We only see Idris for a moment before she is erased and replaced with the Doctor’s ship. We have no time to wonder who she is, or what misadventure brought her to this sad asteroid or indeed why she is the only one like her around. But she wears a blue dress and her name is tantalisingly close to ‘I, TARDIS’.

So the TARDIS walks and talks in this story, a truly new idea for the series. But even this is an opportunity to look back at the series’ past and put long held conventions into context. Now that the TARDIS can talk we discover, for instance, that all those years ago the Doctor did not merely steal the TARDIS, but that it also stole him. That the Doctor has been too busy pushing those TARDIS doors open to notice that the notice on the front says ‘pull to open’. And – my favourite – that the TARDIS’s seemingly erratic navigation is a front for a machine with its own ideas about destinations. ‘You didn’t always take me where I wanted to go,’ complains the Doctor at one stage. ‘But I always took you where you needed to go’, Idris coolly replies. Hundreds of past plot conveniences made sense of in two neat sentences.

The Doctor and Idris set about building a working console from the scattered remnants of dead TARDISes. Here, Gaiman specified that it should resemble the TARDIS console of his favourite Who era, the late ’70s. But fans will remember that the Doctor travelled by console only in Third Doctor epic Inferno. Meanwhile, Amy and Rory are in their own rerun of Inside the Spaceship, trapped inside the ship and assaulted with mind games. Or perhaps it’s The Invasion of Time, running for their lives through those labyrinthine corridors.

The mental shenanigans are thanks to House (creepily voiced by Michael Sheen), the disembodied entity which formerly inhabited the asteroid. Its name is significant; once inside the TARDIS it is inhabiting the Doctor’s home, as close a thing to a house as he’s ever had. The planet which is actually a living being reminds us of Planet of Evil, but there’s also this aside from Destiny of the Daleks, which might have sparked a young Gaiman’s imagination.

DOCTOR: (reading from a book) “‘The conditions existing on the planet Magla make it incapable of supporting any lifeform.’… He obviously doesn’t realise the planet Magla’s an eight thousand mile wide amoeba that has grown a crusty shell.”

It pays homage to the new series too, with the thrifty presence of an Ood nodding to the Russell T Davies era. And when our team reunites towards the end of the episode, they do so in the console room used by Doctors Nine and Ten (oh, and it’s nice to have it back. That original Eleventh Doctor one was like every crazy idea ever had thrown at a set. The Doctor Who equivalent of the Homer Simpson designed car.)

The Doctor tricks House into deleting that old console room (more’s the pity) on the premise that it will delete the Doctor and co too (and hello to you too, Castrovalva). But as it turns out there’s a little cheat coming. Turns out, when deleting rooms living organisms within get deposited in the console room, from where the TARDIS’s original soul can evict the cookoo from its nest. It’s a little too cute to solve the story’s problem with a hitherto unmentioned TARDIS trick, but there you go.

Idris returns briefly in ethereal form to say, in a typically topsy turvy way, hello. Doctor and TARDIS will never speak again. It’s enough to move the Doctor to tears, and we see then that the title is more than just a fannish reference, but a real acknowledgement that these two are their own, sole constant companions. It’s the end of a particularly memorable ride.

With all done and dusted, the Doctor prepares to take his friends for a holiday. His destination, familiar to anyone who knows The Five Doctors, is the Eye of Orion. It’s a fitting end for what has been the series’ most heartfelt love letter to itself.

LINK to The Lazarus Experiment. Both are directed by prolific new series director Richard Clark.

NEXT TIME… Disgusting! Prepare to be Drahvin mad by Galaxy 4. No, Rilly.