Tag Archives: series one

Goosesteps, quicksteps and The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances (2005)

empty-child

I’m thinking of a Doctor Who DVD box set – the World War II stories. It consists of Let’s Kill Hitler, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the first bit), The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Doctor, The Widow & the Wardrobe (the rest of it), Victory of the Daleks and The Curse of Fenric. It could come in a special edition gas mask shaped tin. You could press a button and hear it say, ‘are you my Mummy?’ It would fly off the shelves like a Lancaster bomber or maybe float off gently like a barrage balloon.

Why has World War II proven such fertile ground in which to grow Doctor Who, particularly as conceived by Steven Moffat? On the face of it, it’s subject matter which should be too edgy for the series. Perhaps it’s because the two have long been connected.

When Doctor Who started, it was 18 years since the war had ended. Its influence was still being felt; in the series’ initial conception, you’ll recall, the Doctor was fleeing from a galactic war. The first Dalek story references the Nazis heavily, and the second imagines Britain overrun with fascist invaders. Even The doddery old Sensorites is a story of soldiers left behind, fighting a war long since over.

And when the show returned to 1963 for Remembrance of the Daleks, characters like Ratcliffe and Harry recalled the war; the novelisation has Rachel Jensen remembering surviving the blitz. So the genesis of this show is linked to the war, and to British pride of triumphing against overwhelming odds. In The Empty Child, the Doctor (U-boat captain Christopher Eccleston) gives voice to this pride:

Right now, not very far from here, the German war machine is rolling up the map of Europe. Country after country, falling like dominoes. Nothing can stop it. Nothing. Until one, tiny, damp little island says no. No. Not here. A mouse in front of a lion. You’re amazing, the lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me.

William Hartnell’s Doctor never did end up running from that mysterious alien war, but Eccleston’s Doctor did. It’s odd that of all the stories in that first year of rejuvenated Who, this one, set in a war so close to the series’ home, is the one that dwells on the time war the least. Not at all in fact, even though our war veteran Doctor is smack in the middle of events which should feel grimly familiar. But that’s because cosmic angst is not on Moffat’s agenda.

No, he wants to scare children and get the Doctor laid.

***

The first part of that he does with consummate style. He begins with a haunting image: a five year old boy in a gas mask. This boy terrifies those around him, but his plaintiff cries resonate with any adult who has half a heart: ‘Please let me in, Mummy. I’m scared of the bombs’. Who wouldn’t want to embrace that child, take him in, make him safe?

But touching this boy is the one thing you can’t do. It’s the next of Moffat’s steps towards creating something really creepy. Touch the boy and you don’t quite die, but your life is emptied out of you. The next thing you know a gas mask is forcing its way up your throat and then your face becomes the gas mask. A physical amalgamation of flesh and object. There’s never been anything quite like it in Doctor Who.

His final trick is to set it in the Blitz, where death could fall from the sky at a moment’s notice. The characters we meet are already living under incredible stress. They’re permanently scared and hungry and under siege from an enemy they can’t protect themselves from. The threat represented by the empty child is not that dissimilar from that brought by the Germans, though far more insidious.

From there on in, Moffat pulls the familiar tricks to bring the scares: you’re surrounded by them, don’t let them touch you, you think you’re safe but you’re not, time’s running out and it’s actually in the room with you. Those are standard narrative driven frights, brought to life by James Hawes’ vivid direction. But they are the symptoms, not the cause of this terror. The cause is those bold, unsettling concepts: a boy in a gas mask, a mask that eats your face, death calling at any time and you with no defence.

***

Moffat ignores the time war. But this first series’ other major obsession, the burgeoning relationship between the Doctor and Rose (Billie Piper), is front and centre. Earlier in the season, wannabe companion Adam Mitchell had been introduced to throw a gooseberry at the Doctor and Rose’s quietly developing romance. But he proved no contest. In the previous episode, Father’s Day,  Rose wondered, ‘Why does everyone think we’re a couple?’ Well, because you constantly act like one, I suppose.

Moffat introduces a new competitor for Rose’s affections, and this one’s a contender: tall, dark and handsome, plus he’s got his own spaceship. Captain Jack (John Barrowman) will become very familiar to us in future years and his omnisexual appetite will become one of his defining characteristics. But here he’s the Doctor’s rival and Rose feels an immediate attraction to him. It’s clear the Doctor’s going to have to lift his game.

There can only be one winner. But Jack eventually retreats to his spaceship, shamefully realising his responsibility in bringing the Chula nanogenes to Earth. The Doctor solves the problem at hand, by a combination of luck and smarts, and brings everyone back to life. There’s no contest between these two, in the end. ‘I’m on fire!’ he roars in triumph as the story comes to close.

So of course he gets the girl. And they end up dancing joyously around the console room in celebration. For the first time, we see dancing presented as a metaphor for sex, so it’s hard to see that hop as anything but a hugely enjoyable post-match shag. It’s even in the title: The Doctor Dances.  Well, perhaps it would have been a step too far to call it The Doctor Loses his Cherry.

Hey, maybe there’s another potential boxset here: the (ahem) Dancing Stories. It would go The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace… and um, does the Drunk Giraffe count?

LINK TO Planet of the Dead. Both have Captains.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: a howler when during the performance of ‘It had to be you’ when the lyrics ‘with all your faults, I love you still’ becomes ‘when I uphold silence still’. Um, what?

NEXT TIME: It’s time to step out on the balcony and wave a tentacle at Terror of the Zygons.

The Monster, the Doctor and Dalek (2005)

dalek

We are so used to Doctor Who these days. We get new episodes every year and a special at Christmas. We’ve had eight series and over 100 new episodes. We take it for granted that every year there’ll be more of it. But it wasn’t always the case.

Back in 2005, each new episode was a miracle. Everyone had thought Doctor Who was dead. The idea that it might come back was only a dream. The news that it was coming back for a 13 episode series on BBC1 was almost unbelievable. Then on top of all that it turned out to be good…  Well, to steal a word from Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor, it was fantastic. Meaning it was like a fantasy.

Episode 6 in that joyous run is Dalek. Cunningly held back to counter any mid season slide in ratings, this was an event within the bigger event of the show’s return. And while the other episodes had been good,  I distinctly remember watching this on broadcast and thinking this was where it really felt like the series was clicking. If it weren’t for those gas mask zombies, it would surely be the stand out episode of that first year of Doctor Who‘s revival. Perhaps it still is.

Its job was to reintroduce the Daleks as an integral part of the series iconography, to an audience who had not given a flying Thal about them for about twenty years. Who didn’t even know them, unless they had seen them as the butt of jokes on TV ads and sketch shows. It pulls off this trick by concentrating on just one Dalek, running amok in a billionaire tyrant’s underground headquarters. And look, we all want this for Murdoch, but that’s not the point.

No, the point is that it does it methodically and effectively; it drip feeds information about the Dalek, gradually revealing its powers, confounding expectations about its limitations, so that by the end of the episode, they are firmly established as big metal badasses. In the season finale, there’s a moment when Rose acknowledges a job well done in this episode when she says, ‘There’s thousands of them now. We could hardly stop one. What’re we going to do?’. We know what she means because the Dalek in Dalek is so formidable.

But I think the really clever thing this episode does is the role reversal between the Doctor and the monster.

We’re used to having villains presented as a dark mirror of the Doctor. In fact that might be essential to any hero/villain relationship. Anyway, you can list them off by heart. The Master, Davros, the Valeyard… but even comparatively b-list villains, like Borusa or Professor Lazarus to choose two random examples, are always there for us to compare to the Doctor.

To directly compare the Doctor to a monster is rarer, but that’s what Dalek does, through role reversal. The Doctor for instance, played with saliva propelling emotion by Eccleston, behaves in a very un-Doctorly way. Upon first discovering the Dalek, the Doctor does not do any of his normal tricks. He doesn’t negotiate or befriend or cajole. He just tries to exterminate it. The first instinct of a Dalek.

The Dalek meanwhile demonstrates its Doctory ingenuity at every turn. It absorbs energy from Rose and escapes by tricking its enemies into a false sense of security before suckering their faces. Its next step is to absorb information. ‘The Dalek’s a genius,’ the Doctor warns. So just like him then, but murderous. Oh, he’s that too now.

For the rest of the episode, the Doctor is largely impotent. He can merely react to what Dalek does. It’s his own tactic turned against him. While the Dalek methodically climbs the levels of Van Statten’s space museum, countering every attempt to destroy it with silent determination, the Doctor’s reduced to tapping on a laptop, shutting bulkheads by remote control.

This culminates in a famous scene where the Dalek chooses to destroys a room full of soldiers by setting the sprinkler system off and electrocuting them with one zappy shot. It’s interesting because there’s no plot reason for it to show such an innovative approach to death; we all know it could just pick off those guards one by one. It chooses the showy way of killing, presumably as a display of strength and to terrify any onlookers. It certainly seems to work on the Doctor, who ends up bawling at the screen, like a showrunner who’s reading on doctorwhonews.net that his season premiere has been leaked online: ‘why can’t you just DIE?!’ But this is surely the Doctor’s modus operandi: come up with a clever solution which not only does the job but underlines your point.

The Dalek gets a bad dose of mercy from being touched by Rose, meaning it thinks twice before exterminating all and sundry. But it also uses Rose as a hostage, manipulating the Doctor’s emotions by threatening to kill her so that he will open a bulkhead (cue more laptop tapping). Now that in itself is not overly Doctor-esque, but when it says “What use are emotions if you will not save the woman you love?” its awkward lack of familiarity with human relationships sounds a bit like someone else we know.

By episode’s end, the Dalek has used guile and intelligence to work its way to freedom, and stands at the finale with the spunky girl by its side. The Doctor on the other hand has resorted to wielding a big gun. Rose says to him, ‘What the hell are you changing into?’ making the implied point explicit. As it turns out, the story’s conclusion has very little to do with him. The Dalek commits suicide with Rose’s consent, while the Doctor is reduced to a bystander. In a strange way, the Dalek has won, while the Doctor has failed at every turn.

We’re so used to Doctor Who these days, but back when we had just 13 episodes of new Who, this one felt like a keeper. It does its job. It brings back the Daleks. But it also forces us to look at the Doctor in a new light. And that’s an astonishingly confident move only 6 episodes in.

‘You would make a good Dalek’ the monster tells the Doctor. He could at least be polite enough to repay the compliment.

LINK to Silver Nemesis. Because there’s a Cyberman’s head on display in Van Statten’s museum, this is the first time we’ve seen one since Silver Nemesis. Unless you count Dimensions in Time, and if you do, god help you.

NEXT TIME: Are you picking your nose? More bubbling lumps of hate in Revelation of the Daleks

World leaders, world events and Aliens of London/World War Three (2005)

aliens of london

En route to 10 Downing St, the Doctor (Christopher Eccelston, half goofy, half broody) asks “Who’s the Prime Minister now?” To which faithful companion Rose (Billie Piper) wisely replies, “How should I know? I missed a year.” Which brings to mind Doctor Who‘s uneasy relationship with merging its own fictional universe with real life. And specifically, how it deals with world leaders.

The rules seems to be these: using an actual/historical world leader? Don’t mess too much with them. Contemporary politics though can be played with. And if you’re going to invent a fictional world leader, then feel free to put them through hell.

Let’s start with the British Prime Minister. History stands, up to a point. It would be difficult, for instance, to set a story in WW2 where Churchill is not Prime Minister. But some fun can be had with contemporary politics. The Green Death, which like all UNIT stories is set some few (but unspecified) years beyond its broadcast date, cheekily suggested that PM Edward Heath would lose the forthcoming election and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe would succeed him. And Terror of the Zygons famously predicts a female Prime Minister, even though Harold Wilson was still in power.

Aliens of London manages to subvert this rule by sticking (kind of) to real life politics AND messing with it. In it, an unnamed British Prime Minister is killed. The episode was made in 2004 and set in 2006, both years when Tony Blair was the job’s real life incumbent. Writer Russell T Davies diplomatically shies away from assassinating the UK’s current PM on prime time television, but his very anonymity indicates that it’s Blair – otherwise why not invent a fictional leader to kill (which, as we’ll see, is often what happens)?

Plus the story goes on to unsubtly comment on the UK’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq based on false evidence of “weapons of mass destruction”, a scandal in which Blair became embroiled, so it’s hard to see the PM’s death as anything other than Davies passing editorial judgement. And in the following year’s Rise of the Cybermen, Mickey suggests that an alternative universe might be one in which Tony Blair was never elected. So we know Blair exists or existed in the Doctor Who universe, and although we don’t know to which office Whoniverse Blair was elected to, I think there’s enough evidence to say he was PM and he was killed by the Slitheen.

(Mentioning Mickey reminds me that at the end of this story he shows the Doctor a newspaper with the headline ‘Alien Hoax’, by way of demonstrating the world’s willful ignorance of recent events. Funny though that the death of the Prime Minister doesn’t warrant a mention.)

So while just about giving us a real life PM, Aliens of London follows the rule that you can muck around with contemporary politics. In subsequent episodes we learn the line of succession goes Tony Blair (probably), Harriet Jones (deposed, then dies) and Harold Saxon (deposed, dies, partly reincarnated, mutates into… Oh, I can’t be arsed. Let’s just say ’dies’). Torchwood: Children of Earth then offers us Brian Green, whose name plays on that of then PM Gordon Brown. Davies decides not to kill this one, but leaves him disgraced and about to be deposed. Being a fictional PM is dicey, and this makes sense in story terms; stories which deal with big world events naturally fit with the rise and fall of leaders. If you want to depose or kill a PM in order to show the scope of your story, you can hardly do it with a real life figure. You need to invent one.

US Presidents have a similarly tricky history. The Chase showed us Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address and The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon gave us Richard Nixon; again historical figures are not messed with. But The Sound of Drums offers us a fictional president, Arthur Colman Winters, who seems to be a stand in for then president George W. Bush. As a fictional world leader, his days are numbered and before long, Winters is gruesomely iced by the Toclafane. (Again, I suspect Davies is having a bit of fun there.) By the time we get to The End of Time, though, history has reasserted itself, and real life POTUS Barack Obama is in office. Being a real life leader, he gets to live.

Anyway, the vagaries of how the show deals with world leaders is just part of a bigger problem with classic Doctor Who always struggled with and that the new series, starting with Aliens of London, tackles head on. The problem is this: how do you show a world crisis, from a small setting?

There were two ways of doing it in the classic series. The first was to rely on “reports coming in from around the world”. Usually recited by a raspy computer. Or told in half heard telephone conversations around a busy UNIT operations room. Maybe plotting incidents on a handy map. The Tenth Planet even had a office in Geneva tracking Cybermen worldwide. Alien invasions of the world!  All told without moving from Television Centre.

The other way is just to ignore the rest of the world. I’m thinking here of stories like The Web of Fear, where London is under attack and although the threat posed by the Yeti is formidable, there’s no call for assistance from any of the UK’s allies. Could the Yeti stand up to the combined forces of NATO for instance? Probably not. So let’s pretend those combined forces don’t exist.

The new series deals with it better and has even developed a house style for this sort of thing, and it starts with Aliens of London. We see TV reports from around the world (Trinity Wells becomes a recurring character as the US news anchor. With each subsequent appearance, she becomes an ever more knowing wink to this globe trotting technique). We get some special effects shots of aliens in front of world landmarks. We still get reports coming in from around the world. And the combination of these is enough to sell us the idea that aliens invade the world, not just London. Or in this case, aliens invade London, but the world is watching.

As for the story itself? Well, it was shot in the new series first production block and it shows new Who trying to define its tone, and not nailing it straight away. With its giggling, farting aliens, and its arch self awareness, this is much more camp than the new series will turn out to be. But in how it tells a story of scale, it sets up quite a few rules which the series follows.

LINKS to Death to the Daleks: this took me a while, but try this one on for size. In both, there’s a climactic act of self sacrifice that leads to the monsters being blown up (although in Death, the self sacrificer Galloway dies, while in World War Three, the Doctor, Rose and Harriet survive).

NEXT TIME… Back of the neck! It’s The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky.