Tag Archives: series 8

Six, Twelve and Into the Dalek (2014)

When John Nathan-Turner became producer of Doctor Who, he soon got to cast his first Doctor. He chose the youngest ever actor for the role, to create a likeable, appealing new Time Lord. Roughly 30 years later, showrunner Steven Moffat did the same.

JN-T later found himself re-casting the Doctor three years into the job, and he created a new version who was loud, brash and wore garish, multi-coloured clothing. The snider commentators suggested that JN-T had started fashioning the Doctor in his own image. What then to say about Steven Moffat, who when designing his second Doctor, produced a grumpy, dour Scotsman with a biting wit and a penchant for dark jackets?

Into the Dalek has got me thinking about the similarities between Doctors Six and Twelve, and not just that they may bear a passing resemblance to their creators. They are similar in many ways and both are extreme reactions to their charming, boyish predecessors. Both are deliberate attempts to make the Doctor less accessible, more challenging and to bring conflict to their relationships with their companions. If you ever wished the sixth Doctor’s era had better writing, better direction and a subtler costume for the leading man, you can more or less see the results in Peter Capaldi’s first season.

Into the Dalek features the twelfth Doctor at his least likeable; his charismatic nadir, from which he has been slowly but steadily climbing ever since. He lacks compassion, right from the story’s opening when he can’t bring himself to give a word’s comfort to Journey Blue (Zawe Ashton) who has just watched her brother die. He is openly dismissive of those he deems unworthy of his attention; he can’t bring himself to remember Morgan’s (Michael Smiley) name, just calling him “a sort of boss one” and “Uncle Stupid”. And he leads crew member Ross (Ben Crompton), under terminal assault by Dalek antibodies, to believe he has a chance to live, before using his death as an escape plan. In The Day of the Doctor, only three stories ago, we were reminded that the Doctor is never cruel or cowardly. He’s certainly no coward, but we can no longer be sure about his absence of cruelty.

Old Sixie was a bit like this. He couldn’t bring himself to be compassionate when his companion Peri was forced to kill that Mutant in Revelation of the Daleks. In The Twin Dilemma, he was rude and dismissive towards intergalactic policeman Hugo Lang. But he also had, particularly in Season 22, a violent streak which P-Cap lacks, dishing out unpleasant deaths to adversaries in Vengeance on Varos and The Two Doctors. Six was more likely to be a participant in people’s deaths and Twelve is more likely to coldly use them to his advantage.

Unexpectedly, the sixth Doctor is the more outwardly sympathetic of the two. Despite his apparent lack of warmth, he’s more likely than the twelfth to pause to mourn a comrade’s death, or to express remorse. Capaldi’s Doctor is more likely to simply move on. Quite horribly so, in the case of Ross, who is liquidated by Dalek antibodies and deposited in the chamber the Doctor and friends escape to. “Top layer,” he baldly tells Journey, “if you want to say a few words.” It’s a step too far; too crass and unfeeling for any version of the Doctor. It’s the twelfth’s version of the infamous moment in Varos when two men fall into an acid bath and the sixth says, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you.”

In the pre-publicity for his first season, Capaldi called his Doctor “less user friendly” than before. But it’s more than that. In conception, the twelfth and sixth Doctors are deliberate attempts to highlight the difference between his alien point of view and our human one. It’s a dangerous game, one which risks alienating audiences. And there’s a line you can’t cross. The Doctor can be irascible and remote, but he can’t be nasty. Then we start to wonder if he’s worth hanging around with.

This is where the companions come in, and here, Twelve has a few advantages over Six. The sixth Doctor’s relationship with Peri was so volatile it bordered on destructive. She was the focus of much of his unpleasant character traits; supporting characters he was generally nice to. Peri bore the brunt of his bad side. He shouted at her, belittled her and of course, on one occasion, attacked her. There’s a moment in The Two Doctors where he bemoans her for not deducing that he’s been to Seville at least once, and when he turns her back, she mouths silently, “hate you!” There’s a terrible abusive slant on their relationship, demonstrated in those moments when the Doctor suddenly switches from disdain to affectionate concern for Peri, often taking her protectively under his arm. Unpleasant mixed signals. Just awful.

The twelfth Doctor though, has Clara (Jenna Coleman) to whom he made an impassioned plea at the end of the previous episode to stick with him. Despite her misgivings, she agreed, and hugged him, in a powerful symbol that she at heart, loves this version of the Doctor. Her job, as Rose Tyler’s was (and as Peri’s should have been) is to teach him how to be more human, as to help him mend his ways.

Clara’s faith in the Doctor is critical here. It’s the reassurance the audience needs that this Doctor is worth persevering with. It’s the faith that Peri never had in her Doctor, and why her determination to stick with the sixth Doctor seemed so perplexing. We can see why Clara sticks with the twelfth Doctor, because they make a great team. It must be this potential that Journey can see, and why she asks to join the TARDIS at story’s end; Lord knows it can’t be because she’s charmed and intrigued by the Doctor who’s been an utter jerk to her throughout.

Having an unlikeable Doctor does enable us to more clearly see his flaws. In this story, they even become the means to resolving the problem at hand. Rusty (voiced by Nicholas Briggs) flip flops between “Dalek with a conscience” and your everyday murderous sort. But when he mind merges with the Doctor, it’s his hatred of the Daleks, so palpable and raw, which encourages Rusty to turn against his comrades and save the day. Difficult to see that working with Davison or Smith. You need an darker Doctor to be able to unleash that darkness on his enemies.

****

JN-T eventually reconsidered. When Colin Baker came back for The Trial of a Time Lord, he was still loud and brash, but the nastiness was gone and he was nice to Peri. At least until Part Six when… but that’s another story. Point is, he mellowed, and he needed to.

A similar regeneration has happened to Capaldi. By The Return of Doctor Mysterio, he’s a figure of fun. Companion Nardole calls him “very silly” and he’s pulling cheeseburgers out of his coat and swinging comically outside windows. In Season 10, companion Bill clearly adores him – whole lecture theatres full of students adore him. He’s more dotty and less acerbic than before. He’s come a long way from the version of him we meet in Into the Dalek, and he needed to.

LINK TO Mummy on the Orient Express: same Doctor, same season, easy done.

NEXT TIME: What phantasmagoria is this? Why, it’s The Unquiet Dead.

 

Break ups, break downs and Mummy on the Orient Express (2014)

mummy

We can be a bit shallow, us fans. We love a good monster. We’ll forgive a lot when a story features a proper, Hinchcliffe level, scary beast. And Mummy on the Orient Express has a cracker of a monster in the shape of the Foretold (Jamie Hill).

Too scary to put on the promos, it’s an grimy, cadaverous thing which makes the lot from Pyramids of Mars look welcomingly cuddly. It’s not just the empty decaying face of it, but also its slow relentless walk, always dragging that one foot behind it. The skinny, grasping arm stretching out at its victim’s face. Plus the onscreen countdown, adding a real time tension to proceedings. No wonder DWM readers voted this story best of breed in 2014.

However, being so in love with this story’s ghoulish brute, I think we have collectively papered over a few holes in the plot. The Foretold, we’re told, is an old soldier, who should be long dead, but is being kept alive by technology and will keep on killing until it gets orders to stop. Which is all well and good, but why is he a mummy? Was this alien war based in ancient Egypt? Is there a planet of the Mummies out there somewhere? What’s going on?

Then there’s Gus (John Sessions) the omnipresent, homicidal onboard computer, a direct descendant of 2001‘s Hal. It’s Gus, it turns out, which has orchestrated the whole affair, and brought the Foretold to the train, along with a group of scientists to divine the monster’s origins and purpose. To what end, though, we never find out. Let alone who built and programmed Gus, or what he has planning to do with a killer Mummy wth a gammy leg.

*****

Incidentally… MOTOE features a corker of an example of a Doctor Who quirk I like to keep my eye on: characters who should have lines, but don’t.

The simplest example I can think of happens in City of Death. Two heavies, played by extras (making them extra heavies, ha ha), have been employed by Scarlioni to spy on the Doctor. They appear at the top of the scene, but instead of giving their report, we just hear Scarlioni commend them on their work. They leave without saying a word. By all rights, they should have lines. But that would mean paying them more. So they remain silent, in the face of all credulity.

This happens not infrequently in old Who, less often in new Who. In MOTOE though, it’s back with a vengeance. It transpires that the passengers are not just any old trainspotters, but eminent scientists Gus has brought together to study the Foretold. Experts in their fields! A whole carriage of them! Working together on a wicked problem! And none of them ever say a thing. Very weird.

 *****

One more strange plot development. As the end of episode approaches, everything has to be wrapped up quickly, so the train suddenly explodes. Next thing we know, the Doctor (P-Cap) is waiting for Clara (J-Cole) to wake up on a beach. Turns out he managed to teleport everyone on board the train into the TARDIS before the explosion. Then he returned them all to a nearby planet.

Which is all fine… but why did he then drag Clara out of the TARDIS and on to the beach? He couldn’t have explained the plot to her in the TARDIS?

I know, I know. Shut up and look at the scary monster!

****

The other thing going on here is the break up of the Doctor and Clara.

She spends the episode questioning her relationship with him. There are a few crucial moments which punctuate this uncertainty: when she complies with his request to lie to Maisie (Daisy Beaumont) and bring her to him, when she realises the Doctor brought her to the Orient Express expecting trouble and didn’t tell her, when the Doctor takes Maisie’s place as the Foretold’s target and when the Doctor then saves everyone. Clara’s emotions rollercoaster accordingly.

Then she makes an interesting choice; she lies to Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) and recommits to travelling with the Doctor. It’s a confusing choice because the Doctor’s the same spiky, manipulative grump he was at the beginning of the episode. So why would the events of Mummy on the Orient Express change her mind?

The answer is, of course, they don’t. It wouldn’t matter what happened in this episode, Clara was always going back to the Doctor. Because she is, as she hints in the final scenes, addicted to this lifestyle. This is another aspect to the darker side of Clara’s personality as explored in Series 8. She’s an addict, a liar and a cheater. She’s the Doctor’s proxy, which sometimes means being as sly and underhanded as he can be.

I gather from my discussions with various casual viewers I know that Clara’s not the most popular of companions. But I think she’s one of the most well rounded, if confounding, characters the new series has given us. Other companions have had depth, but have essentially been angels. Amy, for instance, could be fiery and flighty, but we were never in any doubt that she was 100% a good person.

With Clara, that distinction is much less clear. So as much as the Doctor asks during this series, “am I a good man?” we are just as often shown that Clara is just as morally ambiguous. And if we needed any further proof, when we get to the end of this season, they will part ways, each on the back of mutual lies to the other.

This caginess fits particularly well with this episode, where everybody is hiding something about themselves. Mrs Pitt (Janet Henfrey) is a grandmother masquerading as a mother. Maisie is hiding her hatred of her. Quell (David Bamber) is concealing a dysfunctional past. Gus pretends to be courteous mein host. And Chief Engineer Perkins (Frank Skinner) has nothing to hide, but acts shifty and secretive anyway. Because on a murder mystery, that’s what happens. Here, it’s not so much that everyone’s a suspect, just that everyone’s suspect.

And the Doctor? Well, he’s the one exception. Sure, he might have brought Clara here under false pretenses, but otherwise he doesn’t try at all to hide who he is. He’s a brilliant, brittle, uncompromising alien. Clara can’t help but love him, because despite all his crazy contradictions, he can, when he wants to, show us the most captivating monster contained within.

A bit like us fans and Mummy on the Orient Express.

LINK TO The Savages: victims being drained of their life force.

NEXT TIME: What have we learned today? More Capaldi, Coleman and scary monsters as we go Into the Dalek.

The Doctor, a douchebag and Deep Breath (2014)

deepbreath

So here we are. Awaiting Peter Capaldi’s last season. Knowing it will soon be time to bid him farewell. Doesn’t seem that long ago that Deep Breath introduced him to us. The Twelfth or is it Thirteenth or is it Fourteenth Doctor.

Doctors. Aren’t there a lot of them these days? It wasn’t so long ago that if you were publishing a Doctor Who reference book of some kind you only had to find room on the cover for eight floating heads. I don’t know if you’ve seen the cover of The Time Lord Letters but it really had to work hard to squeeze twelve Doctors onto that cover. Could have been worse if they included John Hurt. Peter Cushing was presumably never in the running.

And how many are we going to get to? 20? 30? At which point does it become unfeasible to keep ranking Doctors by favourite? It’s still just about possible to have a favourite Doctor, a second favourite Doctor and all the way down to twelfth (or thirteenth, or fourteenth). How are we going to do that when there are 37 or something? Sylvester McCoy used to wryly comment on fans telling him he was their fifth favourite Doctor. How much more unedifying to be someone’s 23rd favourite Doctor.

Surely it will become the case that we start to group Doctors into eras, simply to cope with the weight of numbers. People might say they like the Seventies Doctors, or the Noughties Doctors (or the naughty Doctors. That could be a thing) Or perhaps it will be that we start grouping them by type.

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the type that plays hard to like. We might link him with Doctors like William Hartnell and Colin Baker, through whose gruff exteriors companions and audiences alike have to excavate to find the charming, enchanting Time Lords underneath. It doesn’t seem unreasonable that fans might like this type of Doctor over the young, dashing type (your Davisons, Tennants and McGanns) or your outwardly wacky but inwardly devious type (your Troughtons, McCoys and Smiths). Lord only knows what type Tom Baker is. All three at once, maybe.

The coming of Capaldi in Deep Breath signalled not just a change of Doctor, but a change of type of Doctor. For a formidable eight years the Doctor had been young and accessible. A pin-up, and not just for the readers of Doctor Who Magazine. Capaldi was designed to be a complete change.

The oldest actor to take the part since Hartnell. The one with the most established televisual identity, thanks to his bravura performance as the foul mouthed blow torch of a political adviser Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. An artist, a musician, a director. A goddamn Oscar winner. And a Doctor Who fan to boot. The fact that he was to be a radical change of main character mattered little, because everyone – everyone – was convinced that this man was utterly right for the part. For many who had never been comfortable with the Doctor being the young photogenic type, the return to an older Doctor and the gravitas that brought to the part was long overdue.

There was no doubt, as Deep Breath aired. We had absolutely the right man for the job.

But since then, I think it would be fair to say the shine has gone off the show in some ways. Not, I hasten to add, because Capaldi has proven to be a substandard Doctor. You only need to read my post on Heaven Sent to know that I’m a P-Cap fan. Still though, ratings are down and I notice that among my not-we friends who are casual viewers of the show, their enthusiasm has waned since Smith sailed. For a while there it seemed like everyone was a Doctor Who fan. Now it seems to becoming less mainstream, more niche, more the cult series of old.

Sure, it’s hard for a series to maintain maximum appeal over more than a decade. Still, might it not have something to do with casting a Doctor who’s more brusque, more aloof and altogether harder work than audiences have been accustomed to? Could it be that we have a Doctor that fans love but the general public are not as keen on?

And so maybe we have a new type of Doctor again. The “discerning choice” type of Doctor. The connoisseur’s Doctor.

****

Deep Breath is all about someone getting used to a new type of Doctor. Clara (Jenna Coleman) has really been thrown by this regeneration, despite being the one companion to have met all the previous Doctors in a creepy, stalker-ish, I’ve-ended-up-an-extra-in-Dragonfire kind of way. She held a flame for the last Doctor (well, he was the pin-up type) and now, as she says, he’s got old and grey. Madame Vastra (Neve MacIntosh) has to have a stern talk with her about how the Doctor’s not young, has never been young and is actually a mountain face (or something like that). It does feel a bit like the audience is also being reminded that the Doctor can be something other than young and spunky.

Over the course of the episode, Clara perseveres with the Doctor while he behaves intolerably to her. He runs away from her, no less than three times. He abandons her to the mercies of the Half-Face Man (Peter Ferdinando) to endure a terrifying interrogation with no explanation. And while he returns to save her, there’s never an apology or a comforting word.  It’s not just that this Doctor is less user friendly than before. It’s also that he’s a bit of a douchebag.

At the end of the episode, the eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) makes an unexpected reappearance to ask Clara to forget all the crummy things this new Doctor has done to her and give him another chance. It’s a risky gambit – there would be at least some of the audience wishing he’d not left. But he’s convincing enough for Clara to hang around and hear the new Doctor ask her to, “just see me”. We’re not a million miles away from McCoy’s declaration at the end of Time and the Rani when he promises companion Mel and through her the audience that he’ll grow on them.  It’s a plea to the audience to stick around.

Those who did, I’m sure, have only been rewarded by P-Cap with a performance which has developed and matured over time. Those who haven’t, and the ratings show there have been a few, have really missed out. They probably lacked the confidence of the fans who know that the Doctor can be, at times, a douche but he won’t always be. We know he makes up for it in other ways and that at heart, he cares deeply about doing what’s right. But we can hardly blame a casual audience if they don’t, as Clara does, wait around to find that out.

LINK TO The Celestial Toymaker: both feature characters called Clara.

NEXT TIME… How can you be excited about a rubbish hotel on a rubbish bit of Earth? Let’s find out by developing The God Complex.

An unearthly child, two bad wolves and In the Forest of the Night (2014)

Forest

Here’s my basic thesis on this odd little episode: it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but that shouldn’t stop us enjoying it.

Want to find logical flaws in In the Forest of the Night? We don’t have to look very hard. How does a forest spring up in a 24 hour city like London with no one noticing? If it happened overnight, did it happen in broad daylight on the other side of the world? And why are there so few people in London during the events of this episode? Isn’t the whole idea of trees instantly setting up an oxygen buffer to quell a solar flare just too unfeasible? How about how they all instantly vanish after the flare hits? How can trees repel flames? And what about all the damage caused to roads and buildings and so on caused by trees growing up around them? How was that all immediately fixed?

I have to admit that when I first saw this episode this ever growing pile of problems bugged me a lot. It was that there were so many of them, and they were so blatant. It was when I thought, this must be deliberate. Showrunner Steven Moffat and writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce are smart guys. They must know how preposterous all this is, so what’s their point?

Their point, I think, is that this is not an episode to be taken too literally. I think its closest cousin in Doctor Who would be The Mind Robber, where the events within are so fantastical that it makes more sense to concentrate on themes and subtext of the story, than worry too much about its internal logic. Once I took this approach, I found there was much to enjoy in this densely layered, lyrically written and at times, very funny story.

*****

This story centres on a lost little girl, Maebh Arden (Abigail Eames). ‘Maebh’ means ‘she who intoxicates’ and Arden is Shakespeare’s mystical forest in As You Like it. She wears a red hooded jacket, and she’s menaced by not just one but two big bad wolves, so she’s a strong signal of fairy tales and their influence on this story.  Later, Clara (Jenna Coleman) will compare hers and the Doctor’s (Peter Capaldi) situation to the lost children, Hansel and Gretel. The forest grows overnight with the speed of Jack’s famous beanstalk. Fairy tales are potent stuff and the journey into a dark forest, to suffer through bizarre ordeals but to also learn something about life, is a familiar trope of the fantasy genre. Stephen Sondheim even wrote a musical about it.

In this particular forest, there are strange, unpredictable creatures. They’re called children. Not just the traumatised Maebh, but the rest of the Coal Hill gifted and talented mob. Early in the episode, hard nut Bradley (Ashley Foster) is taunted by smart alec Samson (Jayden Harris-Wallace) by the flickering of torchlight in his eyes. Later, their teacher Danny Pink (Samuel Anderson) uses the same technique to scare off a tiger (is that a genuine Bear Grylls style jungle survival technique? Let’s not try it out). When wayward teenager Annabel (Eloise Barnes) arrives home, she’s peering out of the hydrangea bush as the wolves did earlier in the ep. Kids, wolves and tigers, they’re all the same thing, apparently. Wild, untameable beasts.

These earthly children are at the centre of a giant shout out to Doctor Who’s very first episode. In An Unearthly Child each of our Coal Hill schoolteachers have a flashback to trying to teach Susan something. Here, both Danny (Samuel Anderson) and Clara have a similar moment. Capaldi’s grumpy Doctor is close enough to Hartnell already, but Danny makes the connection clearer when he accuses him (albeit jokingly) of abducting Maebh, as he did Ian and Barbara all those years ago in a junkyard.

Hartnell used to compare the Doctor to a wizard, and that’s clearly what Capaldi is here. Even though Clara says his sonic screwdriver is not a magic wand, he has a mysterious magic cabinet. He can make shiny floating lights appear in the sky. And he inhabits this world full of magic – not just Clarke’s law kind of magic, advanced technology beyond our ken. But genuine-there’s-no-explanation-for-this magic. This is a world where trees don’t burn, where missing daughters reappear in a sparkle of fairy dust, where children can predict incoming solar flares, steal their teacher’s thoughts and command the world to be nice to trees. It is a world where science disappears in a puff of smoke. So of course it has a resident magician, a label often applied to our black clad Doctor.

There’s also a nagging sense the whole thing might be just a dream. Young Ruby (Harley Bird – the voice of Peppa Pig!) wonders how long they’ve slept for. Like Rip Van Winkle, or perhaps the characters of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or even Sleeping Beauty… perhaps they are all the victims of these soporific woods. With reality and fantasy being harder to discern, our little wild animals become inured to the amazing sights around them. They don’t even react when they enter the cavernous TARDIS console room. “There wasn’t a forest. Then there was a forest. Nothing surprises us any more,” explains Ruby.

And then there’s the tiger, and the title, which throws William Blake into the mix. By now, we’re lost in a forest of allusions. What next? You could throw in a joke about Les Miserables and we wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Nothing surprises us any more.

*****

What do all these crazy references indicate? What on earth is Cottrell-Boyce trying to say? I think the common link is the mythic power of stories.

It doesn’t matter if your preferred bedtime story is Red Riding Hood, or The Tyger or An Unearthly Child. The point is the powerful impact they have on the imagination. They disrupt the real world, like a forest bursting through the pavement. And anyone who’s ever tried to put a tantrumming toddler to bed (as wild as a tiger), will know how the right story will transport them to a different world, and send them gently into a world of dreams. They’ll dream of saving the world and talking to trees.

To me, that’s what In the Forest of the Night is about – the power of stories, including Doctor Who, to fire the imagination. If we try to make it all make sense, we’re missing the point. Do you try to make The Tyger makes sense? Or the story of Hansel and Gretel? You might as well try to make sense of a man who changes his face and travels through time in a phone box.

LINK TO The Evil of the Daleks: I’m pointing out a thematic link here, but both are referencing the very earliest Doctor Who stories. As is our next random selection…

NEXT TIME: We get our grubby little protuberances on Remembrance of the Daleks.

Legend, fiction and Robot of Sherwood (2013)

sherwood2

Clara Oswald was born, we’re led to believe, on 23 November 1986 (making her birth story The Ultimate Foe, fact fans). And a story she’s always loved, ever since she was little is Robin Hood (I think you mean since she was young, she’s always been little, I can hear Beverly Hofstadter from The Big Bang Theory saying).

But which version of the story, did she love I wonder? We know she’s a bookworm, so she may well have had the Big Book of Robin Hood, or whatever it was. But I think, like most children of the 80s, she would have been watching those merry men on TV or at the cinema.

She’s just that little bit too young to have seen ITV’s hit series Robin of Sherwood, though perhaps she rented it from the video store when she was older. We didn’t get it out in Australia (as far as I know), but from all accounts, it was the goods: thrilling, enchanting and romantic. All this plus Jondar too. It ran for three seasons and has garnered its own devoted following, and is obviously fondly enough remembered to have an episode of Doctor Who named after it. All in all, it’s a pity Clara wouldn’t have seen it.

But perhaps as a precocious young five year old, she was able to enjoy the bumper Robin Hood year which was 1991. Two major Hoody feature films! One – Robin Hood – was the brooding, serious type with Patrick Bergin. That was the one no-one saw.

The one everyone saw was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. It was inescapable, not least of all because it had a saccharine ballad by Bryan Adams on its soundtrack which was played on ultra high rotation on commercial radio. It conquered the box office and, it has been claimed, was influenced by Robin of Sherwood (and Who stuntman Terry Walsh worked on both apparently). But it’s surely the Costner swashbuckler that Clara’s parents took her to the cinema to see. Then, I imagine, she watched it multiple times on VHS until the tape snapped and she wailed until her parents bought her a new copy. And she sang (Everything I do) I do it for you at her school concert. I can see it now.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is exactly the sought of rollicking popcorn flick that Robot of Sherwood is striving to be. Lots of action, lots of romance and with plenty of arch self awareness. I mean when you have a band of merry men consisting of Costner, Christian Slater and Morgan Freemen, it’s clearly not shooting for verisimilitude. Enter Alan Rickman’s sneering, petulant Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns it up to 11. “Cancel Christmas!”, he demands at one point, a gag which has lasted so long it made it into A Christmas Carol. All this plus King Yrcanos and Gilbert M too. It is, to invoke that much used Who-ish term, a romp. Just like Robot of Sherwood.

So the lineage goes Robin of Sherwood, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Robot of Sherwood. (I think we can also assume that Clara got to see Mel Brooks’ 1993 parody Robin Hood: Men in Tights as well, but the less said about that unfunny mess, the better.)

By the time she’s 19, I imagine Clara’s spending her Saturday nights out socialising, so perhaps she set the tape for Robin Hood, the Tiger Aspect TV series which ran on BBC. It also fits the established template; action, romance and a dash of post-modern humour. Jonas Armstrong was a particularly hipster kind of Robin, it was generally good, clean, occasionally anachronistic fun. All this plus Son of Mine too.

Robin Hood kicked off in 2006, and was, at least in part, a reaction to the successful revamp of Doctor Who. Clearly there was a big enough market for Saturday evening adventures for family viewing to accommodate both. It’s also a reason why new Who has taken so long to get around to a Robin Hood episode (though to be fair, not as long as the original series, which never got there at all). It would have been odd to have two versions of the story on air at once. But it would have been the perfect excuse for a cross over episode. I wonder if it was ever mooted? A Christmas special perhaps?

Why is all this significant? (Well, it’s not really, these are random thoughts after all) But there’s a famous moment in Robot of Sherwood which reminds us that Robin is as much a filmic/televisual hero as a mythic one. It’s that moment where a computer screen is flashing up a variety of representations of Robin from literature and folk law. Among it is a photo from the BBC’s original TV adaptation of the story, Robin Hood, from 1953.

It’s telling that the Robin chosen for that shot is not Jason Connery or Jonas Armstrong or even Kevin Costner. Of course, it’s second Doctor Patrick Troughton, and that cleverly feeds into a key theme of the story, that the Doctor and Robin are similar creatures. That photo of Troughton positions Robin as an echo of the Doctor himself. Later on, there’s some pleasing post-modern chicanery when the Doctor, a fictional character, disputes Robin’s very existence. “I’m as real as you are,” Robin tells the Doctor at the story’s end, which is to acknowledge that both of them are unreal. Both are works of fiction and the stuff of legend.

And from whom did the Doctor (bony rascal Peter Capaldi) learn to sword fight? Richard the Lionheart! (a real person, much mythologised) Cyrano de Bergerac! (a real person, fictionalised for the stage) Errol Flynn! (An actor, famous for playing Robin Hood). So a confusion of historical figures immortalised by legend, historical figures enmeshed in fiction and an actor who pretends to be other people. It’s all very fitting for a sword fight between two fictional characters arguing about who’s real.

But there might have been a more amusing version. Who taught you to fence, Doctor? Terry Walsh! Patrick Troughton! That fox from the Disney film!

LINK to Warriors of the Deep. Soggy Doctors.

NEXT TIME… Enlightenment brings whatever one desires. So that’s good news.

New ideas, Doctorly companions and Flatline (2014)

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I think a key challenge facing Steven Moffat and the other talented folk who make Doctor Who is this: how to find new ideas for a fifty plus year-old program. In fifty plus years, you can tell an awful lot of stories. Pity the new scriptwriter who pitches a storyline to the Moff only to hear ‘they did that in 1975’ or ‘we did that last year’ or ‘they did that in 1975 and we did it again last year.’

But genuinely new things to do with Who are rare and glorious. Take The Doctor’s Wife, for example. It’s sandwiched between The Curse of the Black Spot, which features pirates (done) in a space hospital (done) and some malfunctioning technology (oh dear lord, so done) and The Rebel Flesh with doppelgängers (done), grown in vats (done) in a grimy industrial setting (done) with a duplicate Doctor (the donest of done). But The Doctor’s Wife has a uniquely novel idea – the TARDIS becomes a woman – at its core.

When a new idea comes along, it’s refreshing and energizing. In Series 9, we’ve had a few of these trail blazing episodes: Sleep No More with its challenge to narrative structure, Face the Raven with its Potteresque secret world of aliens hidden in a London alleyway and the virtuosic one-hander Heaven Sent.

But Series 8, Peter Capaldi’s first season, is a game of two halves in this respect. The first half of the season feels safe and familiar. Deep Breath has the Paternoster gang, dinosaurs in London and the bad guys from The Girl in the Fireplace. Into the Dalek is The Invisible Enemy crossed with Dalek. Robot of Sherwood‘s not only that year’s celebrity historical, it’s a rerun of The Time Warrior. The Caretaker is a second attempt to recapture the success of The Lodger. Even Listen is a classic Moffatesque kids-afraid-of-the-dark, timey wimey conceit. So far so familiar.

But half way through, the whole season wakes up. Killer spiders on the Moon, which isn’t the Moon. A Mummy on the Orient Express. Forests reclaiming the earth. Love ’em or hate ’em, they are things the series hasn’t done before. Some of them are mad, outrageous things, but they are genuinely new. And smack in the middle of it all, Flatline, a story about two-dimensional monsters invading our three-dimensional world. Another startlingly new idea.

*****

Flatline feels fresh thanks to its 2D villains, never done before in Who. Conceptually, they are difficult to latch on to. Essentially, they are creations of clever camerawork and CGI. Kids will never be able to draw a Boneless as they might draw a Zygon or a Dalek. They’re monsters which truly liberate Doctor Who from its seemingly endless need for men in rubber suits.

And their non-physical characteristics are just as oblique. We never hear them speak. They don’t even get a name until the episode’s climax. We get no insight into what they want, how they infiltrated our world and no clue as to why or how they can leech away at the TARDIS so effectively. They’re just there, ready to climb out of any flat surface, and stumble drunkenly towards you, your eye never quite getting a true sense of their shape. Writer Jamie Mathieson knows that fear of the unknown is the most potent of all, so he tells us next to nothing about these silent killers. In the end, the Doctor has to make up a name for them, just so we can have something to list in our big book of monsters.

Another way this episode feels new is in its supporting cast, drawn from a gang of community service workers. Local tearaway Rigsy (Joivan Wade) is a graffiti artist, which adds a nice thematic layer in a story about 2D monsters. He and his fellow workers might be more a photogenic lot than your average do-no-gooders but still –  it’s rare for Doctor Who to draw its supporting cast from such unpolished stock. Misanthropic old Fenton (Christopher Fairbank) is familiar enough, but Mathieson makes an effort to make his characters feel different to type. Even bit player Bill (James Quinn) the train driver isn’t what you’d expect. As soon as Clara (Jenna Coleman) asks him to ram a blockage with his train he says, “Is this official? Because I’ve always wanted to ram something.” Which now has me worried about train drivers generally.

But like series 8 as a whole, it’s not all new stuff in Flatline. The Doctor trapped in a shrinking TARDIS happened back in Logopolis. When unpleasant old bastard Fenton survives the episode intact, it’s a repeat of what happened to Rickson in Voyage of the Damned. It’s difficult for a story to feature monsters in underground train tunnels and not evoke The Web of Fear. Most familiar of all though, is the trope of the companion assuming the role of the Doctor.

*****

In Flatline, Clara plays at being the Doctor while he’s trapped in his box. It starts off as a bit of fun, with her taking the opportunity to take a few humorous shots at the old man while he can’t do anything about it (my favourite is when she’s asked what she’s a Doctor of, and she replies “I’m usually quite vague about that.”). But soon enough she’s taking charge of the situation, and making decisions to help keep people alive. The Doctor’s none too pleased with the ruthless pragmatism she exhibits. It’s a trait he’s comfortable with in himself, but finds less palatable in Clara. And as we now know from Face the Raven, it’s a trait which gets her killed.

“Someone’s got to be the Doctor,” said Rose back in The Christmas Invasion, the story which kicked off this whole ‘companion as Doctor substitute’ thing. Since then Martha has had to save the entire world while Doctor became an wizened little elf and Rory’s had to act up in the role while he’s been quarantined in the TARDIS (“You’re turning me into you!” Rory bawled on that occasion). And Donna became a human Doctor hybrid. It seems new Who’s fascinated with seeing how a companion would fill the Doctor’s shoes, which the old series rarely did (though as we’ve seen recently, it let the companions dress up as him).

Which as far as I can see leads us to one logical step Doctor Who has yet to take, which is for an episode where the Doctor actually inhabits his companion’s body, and vice versa. It would give us a chance to sample what a female Doctor would look like. If it’s not a female companion, then maybe it’s Missy who might might play the host body. And if we’re able to overlook Freaky Friday, I think that qualifies as a genuinely new idea.

UPDATE: 9 Dec 2015. I suspected I might feel like updating this article post Hell Bent. And sure enough, in it, we saw Clara’s transformation into a surrogate Doctor become complete. But I think few of us would have predicted she’d end up in an incongruous costume, piloting a faulty TARDIS on the run from the Time Lords, with a pretty female companion. As the Doctor aptly put it, “Clara who?”.

Interestingly enough though, this is not so much a new idea, as it is the long awaited realisation of a previously mooted one; that upon leaving the show, a companion could become a proto-Doctor. Years ago, it was suggested that in the never made Season 27, Ace may have left the Doctor to join the Time Lord academy. As it turns out, we’re fortunate it never actually happened. Otherise the Moff might have dismissed that notion with a desultory “they did that in 1990.”

LINK to Dragonfire: Both feature guest stars called Quinn; Patricia Quinn in Dragonfire and James Quinn in Flatline. Tenuous link alert!

NEXT TIME… All the way from Metebbalis 3, it’s Hide.

 

 

 

Violence, sex and Dark Water/Death in Heaven (2014)

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She has two hearts, right? The Doctor abandoned her, right? (Er, sort of) And Missy is short for Mistress, just like K9 used to call her. So I was well prepared. I had it all worked out. When Michelle Gomez purred in our hero’s ear “Well, I couldn’t really go on calling myself…” I was utterly convinced the next word would be… Romana.

Of course I was wrong. I always am when it comes to predicting Doctor Who twists. Other films and TV shows I’m quite good at. He’s a ghost. The murderer’s that guy no one suspects. She’s been there the whole time, and so on. But Doctor Who, the series I know better than anything else, stumps me every time.

I love it, of course. It’s part of the fun. But lots of other, more sensible people weren’t fooled. They’d guessed that Missy was a newly feminised Master long before the reveal. Many at the moment she introduced herself as “Missy”. I, on the other hand, had ruled out the possibility. Because, I thought, why would you recast the Master, when John Simm was so good in the role?

Any number of reasons, I suppose. Perhaps he wasn’t available to reprise his role. Perhaps he didn’t want to. Or perhaps it was simply time for a new person in the role. But if you miss Simm as I do, it helps that Gomez is so perfect in the role. She gives us a truly different version of the Master, (a character whose previous incarnations have tended to not vary so far from each other as the Doctor’s have) and not just because she’s a woman. We’ve never had a Master quite so batty. Or as she puts it, “Look at me. I’m bananas.”

(And despite myself, I feel I have to comment on the Master’s gender swap so here it is: big deal. if humans can change gender, I’ve always assumed that Time Lords could manage it with much less fuss and bother.)

There’s one Masterly aspect where Gomez’s Missy gets dead right and it’s the character’s habit of sudden, lethal violence. She never lets us forget that behind that Mary Poppins exterior (more filmic references), lies a psychopath to whom killing is an everyday habit. The cruellest moment is when she torments fangirl Osgood (Ingrid Oliver) before icing her – “I’m going to kill you in a minute” is one of Steven Moffat’s most chilling lines – but the most shocking is when she flings Kate Stewart (Gemma Redgrave) out of an aeroplane. With typical nonchalance, she moves quickly on to more killing. “Boys, blow up this plane and, I don’t know, Belgium, yeah?”

It’s that casual violence that makes the Master a compelling villain. For me, it’s a vital part of his/her character. Now this bit is where I commit Who heresy (Whoresy?), but this is why original Master Roger Delgado’s my least favourite. He rarely has those moments of utter ruthlessness that mark him as a truly bad guy. A rare example is when he throws a poor unfortunate scientist off the radio tower in Terror of the Autons, but Delgado is generally a safer, more avuncular Master than the rest. He might chop at a few necks and set a few elaborate traps, but he rarely resorts to immediate murder.

Anthony Ainley’s Master may have been a more theatrical Master than Delgado, but at least he had a few moments which showed off his shocking viciousness. Think of the moment in Survival when he sticks his young sidekick with a sharpened tusk. And there’s a great moment in the much underrated Planet of Fire when he’s threatening to incinerate some locals to force the Doctor to reveal the location of a vital TARDIS component. The Doctor pleads and says he doesn’t have the part. “I believe you,” says the Master, before he continues the burning anyway.

Eric Roberts’ gangster style Master in the TV movie got a similarly gruesome moment when he snapped Chang Lee’s neck without hesitation, not to mention when he strangled his host body’s wife in bed (thankfully off screen). Derek Jacobi was only seconds into his brief tenure when he electrocuted Chantho with one sparking cable. John Simm’s Master gassed a room full of politicians and ate two homeless men. Sudden, unexpected violence is the Master’s true calling card, far more than turning people into action figures.

What Simm brought to the role, and what Gomez has picked up on, is a kind of dangerous wackiness. Their Masters are clearly loopy, and in Simm’s case, driven insane by that infernal drumming. It’s as if modern day Who needs to rationalise the Master’s villainy as a byproduct of mental instability. It’s not enough for him/her to be evil. He/she’s unhinged, and that explains why he’s/she’s evil.

The other thing Gomez continues with is the Master’s close association with sex. One of the first things she does when meeting Peter Capaldi’s fierce and feisty Doctor is to snog him.

In Old Who, the Master has always been sexualised in a way the Doctor was not. And in New Who there’s a real difference apparent in presenting them both as sexual creatures. It can be summarised like this: the Doctor gets romanced, the Master gets laid. John Simm’s Master was clearly a sexual being. He married an Earth woman, and they canoodled like teenagers. In The Last of the Time Lords he emerges presumably from bed, hair disheveled and in a satin night gown, like he’s been interrupted. He even suggests a threesome at one stage, and Lucy Saxon’s battered and dazed appearance casts the dark shadow of violence over their relationship.

But even in Old Who, the Master was about sex and violence, both activities which set him apart from his own race, the passive and passionless Time Lords. Delgado, as we saw in The Time Monster seduced a married woman. Eric Roberts’ Master was born in a marital bed. Even the staid Ainley version chose to assume the body of a man in love with his new bride. It seems that between the Doctor and the Master, it’s the latter who ‘owns’ sex, and as a result, the series positions sex with corruption and crime.

But let’s get to the big question: now that she’s a woman, will the Doctor and the Master get it on? Well, let’s not be heteronormative about this, it was always a possibility (although let’s stick with a Tennant/Simm pairing rather than think about any of the other possible Doctor/Master hook ups. Ooops, too late, you have haven’t you?) But now, they could actually have kids!

My bet’s on a girl first time round. They’ll call her Romana.  (Or maybe Maisie?) That’s my theory and I’m sticking with it! Because having got my Who twists wrong so many times, my luck’s got to change eventually.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: Gallifrey is spelt Galyfrey at one stage, which is quite fetching actually. Perhaps if they have a boy.

LINK TO: The Gunfighters. Get this: they both feature Tombstones. That made me smile.

NEXT TIME: We’re off to infiltrate The Moonbase. Clever, clever, clever.