Tag Archives: series 7

Surprise, spin-offs and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (2012)

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Six surprising things that happen in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and the further adventures that could spring from them.

  1. The Doctor assembles a gang.

In 2012, Avengers (no, not the cool ones, the Marvel ones) were assembling to stage a loud and colourful assault on the big screen. Naturally those Avengers are all muscly, spandex-clad hotties ready to kick some bad guy ass. And this is, remember, the season where Doctor Who aimed to mimic those big popcorn films, even to the extent of this episode’s title riffing off Snakes on a Plane. So it’s kind of refreshing that when the Doctor (not so muscly, thankfully not spandex clad Matt Smith) tries to go all Hollywood and assemble a gang for his own adventure, he chooses a miscellany of misfits: an ancient Egyptian queen, a big game hunter, the Ponds and their Dad. By the time they get menaced by some dinosaurs and run down a corridor en masse, it’s time for the opening title sequence. You know from that point on, this one’s going to be a rollercoaster ride.

Big Finish pitch one: The Doctor’s Gang. On the way home from the Silurian Ark, the Doctor, Nefi, Riddell, the Ponds and their Dad, get up to all sorts of hijinks. And then River Song turns up! 4 disc box set.

  1. The future’s not all white.

The Doctor gets sent on a mission, not by UNIT or the Time Lords or River Song asking him to pick up some milk on the way home, but by people we’ve never met before: the Indian Space Agency. Suddenly, Doctor Who seems to be taking account of our shifting world order, and posits a future where India is the predominant power in space. We meet calm and pragmatic Indira (Sunetra Sarker) who, despite the dual misfortunes of lacking a rack or a surname, is the leader of the ISA and a kind of stand-in Brigadier (and we all recall how he dealt with Silurians). There’s a sense that the Doctor and Indira have a mutual respect for each other which might have been the basis for a whole other series of adventures.

Big Finish pitch two: Indian Space Agency. Indira, “ISA Worker” and the rest of the ISA staff battle new threats to Earth with their brilliant, but not entirely reliable scientific adviser. On the way, they’ll get surnames and motivations. 3 x 4 disc box set.

  1. Bad guys get the girl

Much is made of the flirty tension between old school hunter Riddell (Rupert Graves) and even older school monarch Queen Nefertiti (Riann Steele). Throughout, Riddell’s patronizing and chauvinistic remarks are effectively put down by Nefi. If there’s a spark between then, it expresses itself in threats of violence:

RIDDELL: I shall put you across my knee and spank you!

NEFERTITI: Try, and I’ll snap your neck in a heartbeat!

He’s clearly interested in her, but she thinks he’s the dinosaur on this spaceship. How then to explain how at the story’s end, she ends up emerging from his tent, hair untethered, brandishing a gun? How did this leering buffoon get to score with this smart, powerful woman, who clearly wasn’t having a bar of him? (And don’t they know what happens to characters who shag in Doctor Who?) If anything at all was going to happen between them, it should have been her taking him back to Egypt to keep him as her concubine.

And then there’s Solomon (David Bradley) and his thinly veiled threats to sexually abuse Nefi once he has her on his ship. “I will break you in with immense pleasure,” he hisses at her, having pinioned her to the floor with his space crutch. It’s unpleasant, to say the least, but it’s supplanted by the sheer bewildering wrongness of putting a smart, sexy, capable woman on screen and then a. having her threatened with rape and b. having her run off with her harasser. That really sits badly among this otherwise cheery joyride of an episode.

BBC3 Documentary pitch: “It’s stopped being fun, Doctor”. Janet Fielding, Germaine Greer and Christel Dee decode the sexual politics of Doctor Who over its long history. 250 x 30min eps.

  1. The Silurians get a confusing addition to their backstory

So the Silurians, who we previously thought of as Earthbound creatures, can build a space ark the size of Canada, complete with an ocean to power it. But it’s also one which needs two family members to pilot it and it has computer displays written in English. And still with all this technology at their disposal, they couldn’t predict that the moon wouldn’t collide with the earth. Nor could they work out how to repel an invasion by one man and two comedy robots.

BBC Books pitch: “The Discontinuity Guide – Silurian Edition.” All you ever wanted to know about this imaginary universe and how it all makes sense, really it does. Illustrated hardcover, 250 pages, full colour, RRP £100.

  1. The Doctor gets his… Unlikeliest. Companion. Ever.

When you’re updating your list of official Doctor Who companions (I do mine weekly. It currently includes Captain Yates, Courtney Woods and those bats from the TV Movie), don’t forget to include Brian Pond (Mark Williams). For at the end of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, we learn that he joins the Doctor for a series of wacky and occasionally hand illustrated adventures. Personally, it sounds like a hoot. Sign me up. I hope each episode starts with a new lightbulb being changed the TARDIS and includes a cheeky joke about his testicles. Brian’s, I mean, not the Doctor’s. After all, his (as we now know) are optional.

Big Finish pitch three: “A Pond? My Soul! – The Continuing Adventures of Brian Pond” Brian and the Doctor continue their sight seeing trip around the galaxy, with hilarious results! Along the way, they’ll bump into the Axons, the Mandrels and a deadly new breed of Navarinos. 5 x 4 disc box sets.

  1. It’s nice one minute, nasty the next.

The Doctor’s on a bit of rollercoaster ride himself this episode. One minute he’s cheery and childlike, boasting about his Christmas list. But once Solomon turns up to spoil his fun, he turns into a dark vengeance wreaker. In a rare display of ruthlessness, he blows up Solomon’s ship with him in it, coldly referencing the slaughter of the ship’s original inhabitants as justification.

Actually, the whole story’s cheery and childlike one minute, then dark and violent the next. It’s not just the Doctor’s retribution or Solomon’s creepy abduction of Nefi, it’s the whole tone of the thing, which is perhaps best summed up by the moment when Solomon shoots Tricey the Triceratops, which had, up until that point, been the most joyous and kid-friendly element in the story (Mrs Spandrell won’t watch the episode because of that moment).

It’s an unsettling feeling, to be led to think that you’re embarking on one of Doctor Who’s trademark “enjoyable romps” only to then be confronted by mass murder, random acts of violence and the hint of sexual sadism. Still, I’m sure it’s only a one-off.

BBC One pitch: “Doctor Who” An exciting adventure in time and space by Chris Chibnall. Early evening slot on Saturdays. 10 x 50 mins episodes.

LINK TO… World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls. Both star David Bradley.

NEXT TIME… medieval misfits! We’re beset by The King’s Demons.

BUT FIRST…. Another in the (very) occasional series of Random Extras, by way of a side trip to Shada.

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Afterwards, afterwords and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012)

Doctor Who - Series 7

Hello, old friend. And here we are, you and me, on the last page. Well, not so much you. Because I’m the one who’s been abandoned in New York 1938. I’m on the last page, you’re stlll… well, who knows how many pages into your book. Probably somewhere in the middle.

Talking of books, how did you not realise that book you were suddenly so into was by River? It was written by someone called Melody, and if that wasn’t a big enough tip off, it had a picture of River on the cover. I mean, come on.

By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone. But we’re not worried, because you can just come back and get us. I know you said all that stuff about not being able to change history, but that’s got to be a load of tosh, because you do that all the time, right? It’s all you ever talk about, with your “time can be rewritten” guff.

There is that problem about the TARDIS being unable to land in New York in 1938. Fair enough, so let’s do this. We’ll wait a year, then you can come and get us. Or we’ll go to Toronto, and you can pick us up from there. Or travel back to New York in 1937, park the TARDIS and come wait it out with us for a couple of years. Or travel back in time and mail us a vortex manipulator (because Rory tells me it’s like a motorbike through traffic). Or actually, just ask River to come back and get us. Anyway, point is, there are about a hundred ways to get us out of here, so just do it OK?

Sometimes I do worry about you, though. I think once we’re gone, you won’t be coming back here for a while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Because somehow, solitude has come to mean that you start to go bad and you get grumpy. It used to mean you just mucked around for a bit by yourself, but now it’s the end of the freakin’ cosmos.

Don’t be alone, Doctor. Maybe what you should do is go and find yourself a new companion. Make sure she’s a pretty girl (what am I saying? You’re the last person I need to remind of that.) Find one who embodies some enigma you need to solve. Find one who is feisty and flirtatious and keeps changing careers… oh hang on, that’s me. Just come back and get me. That’s the simplest thing to do.

And do one more thing for me. There’s a little girl waiting in a garden. She’s going to wait a long while, so she’s going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. But maybe on second thoughts don’t, because that will completely screw up my timeline, won’t it? Because if you go and talk to her, while she’s waiting in that garden, I’ll never become the girl who waited. And besides that, it’s just a bit insensitive. Because she’s actually waiting for you to come and take her away, so if you just come to chat with her for a bit, that will be deeply disappointing to her. Well, whatever. You can sort all that bit out. Time can be rewritten, etc.

Tell her a story. Tell her that if she’s patient, the days are coming that she’ll never forget. Tell her she’ll go to sea and fight pirates. Actually, don’t tell her that one. It was the fake gooey me who did that. And anyway, it’s rubbish.

She’ll fall in love with a man who’ll wait two thousand years to keep her safe. Though actually, he doesn’t really, does he? Because time gets rewritten and it never happens. Hint hint. Hurry up.

Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest whale who ever lived and save a painter in outer space. Wait, hang on a bit. Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived and save a whale in outer space. Maybe don’t tell her she’ll be forced to give birth to a hitherto unknown baby in space hospital and then forced to give that baby up and be unable to conceive any more children. That might put her off the whole thing.

Tell her this is the story of Amelia Pond. And this how it ends. Except it can’t, can it? Because this ending’s nonsense and makes a mockery of everything you’ve said for the last few years for the sake of a contrived tearjerker of a farewell. I think she’ll feel really cheated by that. So just come back and rescue us and we’ll think of another way for it to end.

More fittingly, Rory and I would probably have just decided that our last encounter with the angels was just one close shave too many, and decided to stay at home, hanging up our travelling shoes forever. And that would be great, right? Because isn’t just utterly fairy tale? Don’t all the characters in fairy tales grow up eventually and live happily ever after? It can still be dramatic, a big gut-wrenching decision. Hey, you could even still have your tearjerker ending; you can watch us grow old together through the years, and feel the slow aching despair of watching your best friends take the slow path.

Or if we really are trapped in some temporal life sentence, tell you what… pilot the TARDIS back to somewhere (or somewhen) nearby, catch the train into New York and spend the rest of our lives with us here. We’ll get into all sorts of hijinks. I’m sure there are plenty of alien incursions into New York which need repelling. Think of it as a kind of spin-off from our regular adventures.

Plus Rory says that if he has to sit out a lifetime in the 20th century, he sees no reason why you shouldn’t as well. You floppy haired dingus.

LINK to Time-Flight: one mentions New York and the other’s set in it.

NEXT TIME… A party in the nineteen twenties, that’s more like it. We solve the puzzling case of The Unicorn and the Wasp.

Towers, telephones and The Bells of Saint John (2013)

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They didn’t give him a tank or a warship or an X-wing fighter, they gave him a call box from which you can call for help. Steven Moffat.

The little Spandrells are watching a show at the moment called Andy’s Prehistoric Adventures. In it, an odd looking man (all teeth and curls, like a young Tom Baker) who works in a museum, travels back to the time of the dinosaurs to have some mildly educative adventures. He travels in time via a grandfather clock, which sits incongruously on whichever ancient landscape it arrives in. A TARDIS rip off, if I ever saw one.

Except, it works in a different thematic way to the blue police box exterior of the TARDIS. The grandfather clock very clearly says, it’s about time, kids. But when they made Doctor Who, they didn’t give him a clock, they gave him a police box – an everyday sight, a public object, an outpost of authority and a very British innovation. It symbolised lots of things, but what it didn’t do was baldly state, this is a time machine.

So, no clock. And crucially, no telephone either. It had no communications link back to 1960s England, or indeed any of its destinations. This police box was cut off from everything. Classic Who was made in the days when to conceive of a telephone was to imagine your handset connected to every other one by a complex array of cables. No such cable stretched to Skaro or Marinus. In fact, it takes until Logopolis for the show to visually acknowledge that police boxes even had phones. The TARDIS certainly didn’t.

By the 21st Century, things have changed, and the TARDIS is as connected as any other aspect of our modern lives by telephony. By the phone in the police box’s little exterior cupboard, by the one on the console, by various companions’ mobiles and even by the Doctor’s. The Bells of Saint John takes its title from the TARDIS’s phone (the little cupboardy one) and from the life-changing call which comes through on it, from impossible girl Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) to the Doctor in medieval seclusion (Matt Smith).

This seems like a particularly Steven Moffaty trait. After all, he first used this conceit of the exterior phone unexpectedly ringing in The Empty Childand returned to it inThe Time of the Doctor. But it was his predecessor Russell T Davies who first put a phone in the TARDIS in World War Three. And his supercharging of Rose’s Nokia 3801 in The End of the World confirmed that in this new version of Who, our heroes were not as cut off from their homes and loved ones as their 20th century counterparts were. They could call across space and even time. Like E.T., they could phone home.

This makes sense. The Doctor has a machine which can traverse the universe and its entire history. Technology way beyond our grasp. Of course, he’d have a phone. It would be kind of weird if he didn’t.

But that’s not why the TARDIS is a phone box; it’s not a symbol of communication. It’s not a lifeline between us and the Doctor. It wasn’t, in its original conception, a place you could call to or from for help. In fact, because it was explicitly disconnected from everything else in the universe, the fact that the police box had a useless phone reinforced how isolated our heroes were. The one thing they couldn’t do was call for help.

It may seem like a small detail, but giving the TARDIS telecommunications changes the show. Once you can, ahem, call the Doctor, he becomes the hero you can summon when needed. Winston Churchill, for instance, calls directly through to the console. Clara calls when she needs help cooking a turkey. It’s the show’s equivalent of Batman’s bat signal. Phone him up and our hero comes running. Add this to our modern Doctors’ ability to steer the TARDIS with pinpoint accuracy, and we really are a long way from the show’s beginnings, where the police box was a cosmic lifeboat, tossed on the waves of time and space, directionless, contactless and utterly isolated.

****

Telephones and computers, and what they might do to us, was the source of much concern in 1966’s The War Machinesand it’s nice to see how little has changed by The Bells of Saint John. There’s always mileage for Doctor Who in technophobia, it’s just that by 2013, that fear is centred on wifi. There’s still a big tower though, from which the bad guys can broadcast their evil, brain harvesting scheme.

The Shard, like the Post Office Tower back in ‘66, represents another concern of modernity. In The War Machines, it was technology itself which grew a mind of its own and got ideas above its base station. Here, it’s technology wielded by a corporation, from within a monolith celebrating capitalism. It’s the stuff of conspiracy theories; shadowy suits manipulating us with a casual swipe up or down on an iPad. They can even make aeroplanes fall from the sky. This is playing on very contemporary fears.

It makes sense that here is where the Great Intelligence should make its return. Being a formless yet sentient spirit, it seems right that it now should lurk within the Cloud, like some particularly malignant piece of code. Certainly, it seems more fitting than in The Snowmen, where it represented the Victorian fascination with the paranormal (if you squint). Funnily enough, though, that’s what the Intelligence was in its 60s conception – a mystic supernatural presence from beyond the astral plane, not a ghost hiding in the machine. But – spoiler alert – we’ll get there is a couple of posts’ time.

For now, let’s just reflect on another of this episode’s big flashy statements. Never mind a telephone, this Doctor’s got serious technology and a motorbike! He rides up the side of the Shard with only a perfunctory line about anti-gravs to cover the implausibly of it all, running straight over the shiny surface of capitalism with those big rubber tyres. “Can he actually do that?” asks an astonished supporting character. Dude, this guy’s an ancient alien superhero with a time machine, a magic wand and a direct line through to his snog box. What can’t he actually do?

Yup, times have really changed.

LINK TO Amy’s Choice. Both Matt Smith stories, and hooray for an easy link.

NEXT TIME…God save the Queen, it’s Empress of Mars.

Friendly buttons, family dramas and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (2013)

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I once said to a fellow fan that I disliked stories which end too conveniently. I think I used Terror of the Autons as an example. Towards the end of that story, there are Autons everywhere. The Nestene is descending. All’s going to hell in a handbasket. Then the Doctor (or the Master, to be precise) flicks a switch, the Nestene’s repelled and all the Autons topple over. All too handy, I complained. The other fan looked at me beadily and said, “you must dislike a lot of Doctor Who stories then.”

He had a point. But ever since the show returned in 2005, the use of a narrative shortcut to drive us to the climax has become more prominent. It happens at about the 35 minute mark. Usually, it’s a near-miraculous catch all development that saves the day in about 5 minutes, no matter how widespread the problem, how many monsters there are or how desperate the situation has become. Usually, it come courtesy of a gadget, or a magical substance or a reversal of the bad guy’s own powers.

I call it the “magic switch”, meaning there’s often a big switch to throw to solve the story’s problem. But it’d be equally valid to call it a “big friendly button”.

What then to make of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, which blatantly uses a big friendly button to conclude its story? Openly acknowledges it. Puts it on screen and gives it a name. Rarely has the series so boldly referenced its own narrative limitations. Why on earth draw attention to it? Unless writer Steve Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat were looking for a wry in-joke. “We’ve now reached the point in the episode for the magic switch, so here it is!”

I think it’s more than self-knowing commentary. I think the big friendly button is a cry of defiance. “We know!” our authors seem to be saying. “Of course, we know. But you find a way to build up a big, bold adventure story, throw everything under the sun in it, and then wrap it up neatly in 5 mins. So sometimes we use a big friendly button. Get over it! We do that sometimes.”

*****

Ages ago, before he made 7 years of Doctor Who, the Moff once made comment on the classic show’s occasional over concentration on the TARDIS as a setting for stories. “We kids want Narnia, not the wardrobe,” he confidently declared.

But then, of course, there’s this episode, where we explore the wardrobe extensively. In the pre-publicity, the Moff declared how he’d loved and now wanted to emulate the TARDIS tour section of The Invasion of Time, indicating a change of tune about the whole Narnia/wardrobe divide. I can understand the appeal. With an extensive world within the TARDIS, there’s a world of potential adventure in their too.

Stories which use the labyrinthine TARDIS corridors as a location apply slightly different emphases each time. The Invasion of Time uses it as the setting for a hunt/chase sequence. Castrovalva uses it as a confounding maze which ensnares unwary travelers. Way back in Inside the Spaceship it was not so much vast as claustrophobic, a place which played tricks on the mind. The same all the years later in The Doctor’s Wife, where it also became a mental torture chamber for Amy and Rory.

It’s all of these things in JTTCOTT. But what it never feels like is the slow perilous climb down into the heart of the ship which the title suggests. It feels a bit like bait and switch, because the suggestion is that it’ll be a Jules Verne-style descent into the core of the beast, facing peril as our heroes break through each stratum.

Instead, it feels much more random and disjointed; not a descent deep into the craft as The Invasion of Time and Castrovalva felt like, but a journey twisting and turning in all sorts of directions. And maybe that’s appropriate, because can a multi-dimensional time ship be said to have a centre at all? Still, it doesn’t feel like a journey to anywhere in particular, but with a lot of interesting sightseeing along the way.

****

Our companions on this meandering expedition are the Van Baalen brothers: Gregor (Ashley Walters), Bram (Mark Oliver) and Tricky (Jahvel Hall). Roughead salvage collectors, this story is the backdrop to a family drama which unfolds. It turns out that following an industrial accident, Tricky has been fooled into believing that he’s an android by Gregor. As an example of a commitment to gullibility in the face of easily accessible evidence, it’s right up there with Guy Crawford’s needless eyepatch and Countess Scarlioni’s alien marriage.

Gregor initially tries to pass it off as a joke that got a little out of hand, but later confesses he did it out of jealousy for their father’s respect. There are a couple of problems with this besides the simple straining of credulity. Firstly, the Van Baalen boys are sadly not interesting enough for us to care about their, admittedly unusual, inter-family dramas. Secondly, said dramas have nothing to do with the predicament at hand. When Gregor eventually fesses up to Tricky in a spare moment between set pieces, it should be a major revelation. But Clara (Jenna Louise Coleman) who is a silent observer to this exchange, is leaning against a wall with a look that says, “and this effects me exactly how?”

****

But then, if any of this, or anything else about JTTCOTT bothers you, worry not – because none of it ever happened. Our big friendly button not only brought this story to a close, it also reset the whole affair. This kind of ending worries me more than the magic switch. If the story’s events were so inconsequential they can be erased at a moment’s notice – why were they worth watching in the first place?

All that’s left is a couple of Wizard of Oz style moments where characters kind of remember something happening to them, but can’t recall why. The Van Baalen brothers might even, if you squint, be stand-ins for the Tin Man (Tricky), the brainless scarecrow (Bram) and the cowardly lion (Gregor).  The Doctor, I suppose, has been our Wizard and Clara our Dorothy, although as I recall, Dorothy never got chased by time burnt zombie creatures and Clara doesn’t even have a little dog. And The Wizard of Oz didn’t hang around in the vehicle that transports its heroes to the site of the story. We kids want Oz, not the cyclone-borne farmhouse.

Or something like that. *Presses big friendly button*

LINK TO Planet of Fire: Companions with things burnt into their skin!

NEXT TIME: Goodbye trampoline, hello blondie! We’re checking in for treatment on New Earth.

Tourism, divorce and Asylum of the Daleks (2012)

In Australia, we have “big things”. These are oversized monuments which serve as cut price tourist traps for towns all around the country. They’re usually giant sculptures or buildings retrofitted into the shape of something indicative of the local area. Often, but not always, produce related. The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour. The Big Merino Ram at Goulburn. The Big Boxing Crocodile in Darwin. They are kitsch colossuses and squirm-worthy expressions of Australian culture. (Bemused non-Australians can consult the full list of Big Things for further clarification. You have been warned.)

So imagine my delight when Asylum of the Daleks opens and shows that Skaro, has its very own big thing, the Big Dalek. Like many Big Things, there are hardly any visitors inside. Just the Doctor (a cagey Matt Smith) and the suspiciously named Darla (Anamaria Marinca) and like most Big Thing attendees, they look tremendously underwhelmed. If only they were eating terrible fast food and browsing half heartedly through overpriced souvenirs, the grim picture would be complete.

The Doctor’s visit to the Big Dalek, highlights one of showrunner Steven Moffat’s recurring motifs about the Daleks – an obsession with what’s inside them. This opening scene’s just a precursor to the episode’s major revelation that crash survivor Oswin (Jenna Louise Coleman) is in fact the cognitive remnants of a converted human, living inside a Dalek. The recently randomed Into the Dalek takes a more literal trip to the interior, but there’s also The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar which, for the third time, put Jenna inside a Dalek. Consider also Moffat’s interior adventures inside robots (Let’s Kill Hitler), the TARDIS (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) and space whales (The Beast Below) and we can see that he’s really into internalising.

Why, I don’t know. But in the case of the Daleks, it does highlight for the viewer they are vehicles, not robots. There are Kaled mutants, and sometimes converted people, inside them. There’s also a classic Moffat inversion on display in this Asylum too. Because as well as people inside Daleks, there are Daleks hiding inside people. Duplicate humans and reanimated corpses sprout eyestalks from their forehead and gunsticks from their palms. Moffat’s Daleks are monsters which both encase you and fester inside you.

Worse than that, they infect you. The Dalek nanocloud is an all pervading smog of tiny robots. They get inside you (that again) and turn you into a Dalek from the inside out. The physical changes come after the mental ones. The mental battle for control is enough to force Oswin to create an elaborate fantasy about being under siege from the Daleks, in order to protect her own identity. We see the start of this process effecting Amy (Karen Gillan) and in a beautifully shot sequence, we see her slipping into madness, and hallucinating that she’s in a ballroom full of dancers, when in fact, she’s in a pit packed with deranged Daleks. Around her, ballerinas pirouette. Add a dancing dwarf and we’re almost at Twin Peaks.

The ballerina, also glimpsed in Oswin’s hideout, is an important symbol here. Dalek creator Terry Nation claimed inspiration for his creatures from the Russian ballet dancers in enormous skirts, gliding across stage. We’re prompted to recall the Daleks’ origins, because this is a story steeped in their history. There are other hints scattered about – Oswin carries an egg whisk about, the better to prepare her soufflés with. Like a young Doctor Who fan creating his own Dalek army out of a miscellany of toys from throughout the show’s history, so Moffat populates Asylum with Daleks of all different colours and designs. Loads of old Dalek stories get shoutouts. This is about mashing up the show’s past and present, as well as discovering whether Daleks are bigger on the inside.

But I digress. I reckon the idea of a Big Dalek has legs, although it wouldn’t actually have legs. It could tower over Cardiff Bay (“Look at the state of it,” could become this century’s “Bye Bye Duggan!”) Exit would be, of course, via the gift shop and if it needs fresh merchandise to sell to hapless visitors, Asylum again shows us the way. Plastic rotating ballerinas. Egg whisks. Eye stalk headbands. And in the cafe, soufflé for all.

*****

But now I must bring up the difficult topic of divorce. Specifically, the Ponds’.

I suppose that one of the problems about having a married couple on any TV program is that marital bliss can’t last forever. Whether it’s likely or not, it’s not very dramatically satisfying. Trouble must eventually set in. Or in the case of the Ponds, suddenly set in.

Asylum implies that it has been some time since Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have seen the Doctor, and since then, their relationship has broken down to the point where divorce is the only option. Only a quick montage in the online extra Pond Life would have indicated to dedicated viewers that anything was wrong with our otherwise loved up comPondians.

Problem is, this relationship breakdown feels inherently artificial, engineered to add a sub plot to this otherwise Daleky tale. The antidote to the nanocloud turning you into a human with Dalek appendages, is love, apparently. So when Amy is threatened with Dalekisation, getting her to reignite her love for Rory is crucial to saving her life.

Problem is, I never really believed they fell out of love. The reason proffered for the break up is that Amy staged a pre-emptive eviction of Rory because he wanted kids she couldn’t biologically produce. This just doesn’t seem like something which would break them up. Surely, the Amy and Rory we know would talk it through. Rory, you’d think, would support Amy, not reject her. Besides, it’s not like the only way to have kids is the old fashioned way. My impression is that couples fray when one partner doesn’t want kids, not when one can’t have kids.

Maybe the problem is we didn’t see Amy and Rory gradually slide into marital discord. We only saw them being perfectly happy together, then divorced, then perfectly happy again. And while it’s interesting to see Doctor Who try its hand at interpersonal drama, the Ponds’ separation seems inherently false. It’s like the Ponds’ grief over losing their baby daughter; it’s just too big a problem to fit into the show’s format, where the adventures must roll inevitably along, pausing not to dwell on emotional distress.

“It’s not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow tie. Don’t give me those big wet eyes, Raggedy Man,” says Amy.  “It’s life. Just life.” Except it’s not, is it? Because if it was, it would be long and protracted and painful, and it wouldn’t necessarily end cleanly and happily in time for the next episode. And the ultimate irony? The Doctor does actually fix it, with a twiddle of his bow tie. Pah.

But… having not so long ago catalogued Doctor Who‘s post-coital scenes, I was delighted to spot a pre-coital one. When the repaired Ponds get dropped off at home at story’s end, Amy shoots Rory a loaded look and heads into a house. Rory’s clearly got the message and has the very pleased look of a man whose drought has broken. Ah, marriage.

RANDOM QUESTION: Why does the Doctor tell Amy that they need to make the Daleks remember her? I must be missing something. Answers in the comments, please.

LINK TO Knock Knock: humans turning into monsters.

NEXT TIME: let’s end on a cliffhanger. It’s one of the stories I’ve referred to above.

Inflexibility, impossibility and The Day of the Doctor (2013)

Fans sometimes talk about Doctor Who‘s infinitely flexible format. This is the show which can go anywhere and do anything. When an anniversary year comes around though, we discover this isn’t as true as we might like to think.

It’s all the fault of The Three Doctors really. It laid down a template for anniversary stories which ever since has been too good to resist. Multi Doctors, uniting against one enormous threat. Then The Five Doctors took it even further. Returning Doctors plus returning companions and lots of returning monsters.

The reunion episode is a TV staple and on any other show, you could do it as often as you like. On ordinary shows, characters can age, and you can pick up with them years after their last TV appearance. You find out what ever happened to them, you try to guess which ones have had plastic surgery, it’s all good fun.

But Doctor Who can’t do that because each of the Doctors is meant to be ageless. We saw each of them turn into another of them, before they got old and creaky. Reunion shows doomed forever. Flexible format, my foot! The Day of the Doctor is bogged down in a format it inherited from Old Who and which was, by 2013, almost impossible to use.

Because here’s the problem. What other possible shape could the show’s 50th anniversary episode take? It’s very difficult to imagine it not being a multi Doctor story, because that’s what Doctor Who anniversaries are. And it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t at least acknowledge each actor to play the title role.

Steven Moffat knew this. More than that, he wanted this – and more. He wanted every Doctor joining forces with himself to save Gallifrey from the Daleks. It’s testament to his ingenuity and determination that he made this happen. Despite three Doctors being dead, four looking significantly different to their Doctorly prime and one flatly refusing to participate.

But that Moff is clever. He takes an impossible format and makes it work. How did he do it?

First, he makes this a story about the Doctor and the biggest day of his life. Think of how different an approach this is to The Three and Five Doctors, where the multiple Doctors simply come out to play, just to have an adventure. Setting this story on the last day of the Time War gives it an event worth watching and makes it more than just a chance to watch rival Doctors squabble. It’s an event big enough for this biggest of episodes.

Secondly, John Hurt. Every anniversary story’s been short its full quota of Doctors and each has come up with inventive ways around the problem. But Moffat’s is the most audacious. Without Christopher Eccleston, he needs a Doctor upon whom to shoulder the story’s moral core – the redemption of the Doctor post his Time War atrocity. At a pinch, it could have been Paul McGann. But in search of a marquee name to hang out the front his 50th anniversary, the Moff creates an entirely new and hitherto unheard of Doctor and has him played by a movie star.

Think the Doctor is a tough role to play? Pah, step aside children. Hurt is instantly right in the part, creating, as McGann did 17 years earlier, a fully formed Doctor in about an hour. There’s a lovely bit somewhere in all the associated behind the scenes material about this story, where Doctors Smith and Tennant giggle like naughty schoolboys about their own acting deficiencies compared to Hurt. Smith says he’s busy pulling faces like mad, when all John Hurt has to do is look and the shot’s in the can.

It would have been great to have Eccleston back. But if he hadn’t said no, we wouldn’t have got Hurt. And it gives The Day of the Doctor the chance to say something new about its lead character; that there was a time when he strayed from the path and became everything a Doctor shouldn’t be.  It’s another way in which Moffat breathes life back into the anniversary show format, by asking that question he loves to ask: Doctor Who? Who is this man and what has shaped him? It’s more introspective than any other multi-Doctor stories to date.

Finally, he plays fast and loose with the structure of a Doctor Who story. You’d be well within your rights to expect a villain of some sort to turn up in the biggest Doctor Who story ever. You might be wondering where the final showdown is, with the Doctors squaring off with some big arse Time Lord baddy, as per Three and Five. Instead Moffat gives us two alien invasions – the Zygons on Earth and the Daleks in the skies above Gallifrey- but boldly keeps these on the sidelines. The main question posed is not, “will the Doctors win?” but “can the Doctor heal himself?”

The answer turns out to be, “yes, but only if we completely retcon the new series”. Moffat is unafraid of such bold, sweeping moves. In The Big Bang, he completely reverses the whole of Series 5. In The Wedding of River Song, he negates an alternative timeline. He’s used to travelling back to a crucial point in history and just changing it. Time, remember, can be rewritten.

So in one fell swoop, he changes the outcome of the Time War, saves Gallifrey from destruction and absolves the Doctor of his crimes. It’s a resetting of the show along the lines of the classic series. The Doctor’s no longer a war criminal, Gallifrey’s in the heavens and all’s right with the world. Plus he manages to rope in all thirteen of the Doctor’s to help, in a smorgasbord of archive footage, vocal impersonations and impressive eyebrows.

Oddly enough though, here he’s on much more traditional anniversary story ground. The Three Doctors ended with the end of the Doctor’s earthly exile. Reset! The Five Doctors ended with the Doctor on the run from his own people again. Reset! And here, a new start, unburdened by the weight of the Time War, which the series has dragged around since 2005.

All delivered in 3D, in cinemas and a guest appearance by Tom Baker. So hats off to the Moff. Upon being told there were no toys left in the toybox, he held a kickass party anyway. And rewrote Doctor Who along the way. Yeah, that’s how he did it.

LINK TO Resurrection of the Daleks: the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey threatened in Resurrection finally happens.

NEXT TIME: The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God. We do the Devil’s work with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

Tombs, moonbases and Nightmare in Silver (2013)

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Moffat’s earliest Who memory is of watching Patrick Troughton and wondering where the real Doctor, William Hartnell, had gone.  …The Doctor Who of the 1960s cemented Moffat’s idea of perfect televisual fear. “It was terrifying,” he says. “It wasn’t the camp or sweet or nice thing it became for a while afterwards. It wasn’t improving or good for you, it just wanted to scare the crap out of you. It was the bad boy of children’s television.”

There is something in this snippet of an interview with The Guardian’s Andrew Harrison, which tells us something about showrunner Steven Moffat’s ambitions for Nightmare in Silver, and perhaps for Doctor Who more generally. There is in him, I think, an ongoing urge to recapture that perfect televisual fear referenced above.

One of the stories the young Moff watched and loved was The Tomb of the Cybermen. He has spoken and written about his admiration for it time and again. It clearly made an impression on him, because the Cybermen are a recurring feature of Doctor Who under his watch. He’s included the Cybermen in every season of Doctor Who that he’s produced except Series 9 (and even then one makes a cameo appearance in Face the Raven).

Reading between the lines, I don’t think he felt, as Series 7 loomed, that he had yet done them justice, and recaptured that terrified sensation he remembered as kid. When he was briefing Neil Gaiman about writing his sophomore episode of Doctor Who, he instructed, maybe even pleaded with him, to “make the Cybermen scary again”. He might have just as well said, ‘give me the feels like when I was 7 years old’.

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Gaiman knew exactly what he meant. Not for nothing does this episode start on a replica of Earth’s moon, as this interview on Collider.com indicates.

“When I was a kid, I was a huge Patrick Troughton fan … I remember The Moonbase, the second outing of the Cybermen.  … I was terrified of them.  I was much more scared of them, in a way, than the Daleks because they were quiet and they slipped in and out of rooms.  It was very off-putting.

Gaiman tries a number of tricks to bring the scares back. The first is the incongruous setting of Hedgewick’s World, a children’s fun park gone to seed. This is a planet on which the fun and games of childhood have become corrupted and threatening. It’s a world filled with the stuff of bad dreams: waxwork museums, broken amusement rides and dormant Cybermen waiting to spring to life. So far, this isn’t so different from a Troughton-esque world of shadows and perils, like a long forgotten tomb or an underground railway tunnel.

Gaiman’s next gambit though takes us away from the Cybermen of the 60s. He innovates the Cybermen, giving them new and deadly features. This includes the ability to move at super speed making them inherently different from those models which lumbered into the Moonbase. Gaiman’s versions also are able to detach hands and heads from their bodies with deadly effect. Their 60s cousins could never do this, but it does call to mind that in their original conception, the Cybermen were a worried reaction to the replacement of body parts with technology.

The Cybermats of Tomb and The Wheel in Space had been made over in the previous season’s Closing Time, as piranha like toys. Here, Gaiman reimagines them as Cybermites, miniature insects which infest buildings and crawl through people’s clothes. It’s a successful reinvention, one that plays on a common phobia more potently than the old C-mats did. The Cybermen themselves had also had a sleek new refit, but they were always changing their look in the old series so that has less of a feeling of innovation, and more of tradition reasserting itself.

Then there’s the inclusion of children Artie (Kassius Carey Johnson) and Angie (Eve de Leon Allen) into this world of danger and mayhem. As we’ve noted before, children are a hallmark of Moffat’s Who and we’re often invited to see the Doctor and the wickedness he combats through their eyes. Rarely though, are they subjected to physical attack or seriously endangered. Here though, both children are partly cybernised, technology grafted onto their heads. Those kids watching Moonbase and Tomb are sucked through the television and into Doctor Who in Nightmare in Silver.

Finally there’s the infiltration of the Doctor (Troughtony Matt Smith) by the Cyberiad. Humans taken over by Cybermen are familiar from all four Troughton Cybertales, and many others throughout Whostory, but we’ve never seen them infect the Doctor. The result is a twisted version of the Doctor, sitting within this twisted vision of an amusement park. The Doctor’s internal mental battle with Mr Clever might be the detail, but the broad brush strokes to keep the kids behind the sofa, is an evil version of daffy old Matt Smith, roaring in anger and delighting in carnage.

So that’s how Gaiman answered Moffat’s challenge, by throwing everything he had at it. Question is, was the Moff satisfied?

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Well, I don’t think so. In a recent DWM, Moffat admitted to himself and us that he’d been trying to remake Tomb every year of his showrunnership. If the attempts were The Pandorica Opens, Closing Time and then Nightmare in Silver, surely if he felt one had been successful in recapturing that perfect televisual fear, there would be no need for him to finally write his own fully fledged Cyberantic Dark Water/Death in Heaven?

That last one had Cybermen emerging from Tomb like cubicles, people infected by Cyber poisoned liquid ala The Moonbase and marching down St Paul’s Catherdral’s steps like The Invasion. It had Cybermen flying about the place, converting the dead and digging themselves out of graves. If this didn’t make the Cybermen scary, what on Telos is going to satisfy Moffat’s desire to match that Tomby magic?

We may yet find out. That bad boy of the bad boy of children’s television has one more season to go.

LINK TO Father’s Day: children in danger.

NEXT TIME: It’s always the innocent bystander who suffers eventually. We travel to a Colony in Space.