Tag Archives: sontarans

Isolation, introspection and The Invasion of Time (1978)

invasion of time

Doctor Who is gonna fix it, Doctor Who will put it right
As he moves across the galaxy at twice the speed of light!
Back into the future, the TARDIS travels time
With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9!

The Ballad of Doctor Who (AKA Doctor Who is gonna fix it). Written by S. Watson, D. Ovenden and R. Young. Performed by Bullamakanka

I write this from a hotel room in Alice Springs. For those of you outside Australia, Alice Springs is smack bang in the centre of the country. It’s about as far from everything as you can get, nothing but desert for hundreds of kilometres. It’s a funny old place –  beautiful in some ways, deeply troubling in others. But despite its contradictions, one thing you can say about it for sure, is that it’s remote.

What, you must be thinking, does this have to do with The Invasion of Time? Well, only that being in Alice Springs has reminded me that watching classic Doctor Who was something done all throughout Australia, including in its most isolated pockets. When I grew up watching Doctor Who in the 70s and 80s, I watched it on ABC TV. It was one of two channels we had when growing up (how ridiculous that must seem to today’s kids) but out here in Alice, there would only have been one, the ABC. Luckily, that’s the one which showed Doctor Who.

The Invasion of Time was a landmark story in ABC TV’s regular repeat runs of Doctor Who. It marked the end of a set of familiar stories repeated often, from Robot to this one. So as a viewer, I noted whenever The Invasion of Time lobbed around. It marked the end of the current run of Doctor Who.  To be replaced by… who cares? Something boring. And the start of the wait until the series was shown again. Probably starting with Robot.

For many other, more casual viewers, The Invasion of Time would be quintessential Doctor Who. It has Tom Baker, being funny and eccentric and putting things right. With his beautiful assistant and his trusty mate K9. It has aliens made of tinfoil and the Doctor shoots the bad guy with a big space gun. For many viewers in Australia of a certain age, this is what Doctor Who is. And any doubt that watching Doctor Who could be a distinctly Australian experience was put to bed by Australian bush band Bullamakanka, singing about the shared experience of watching the show.

Well I was sittin’ in front of the TV set, there were nothin’ much else to do
Then along comes this amazing co’, they called him Doctor Who
It was half-past-six on the ABC, just before the news
No ads to interrupt me, on an interspatial cruise

Half past six on the ABC, before the news, no ads to interrupt me… that describes the viewing experience pretty well. Sittin’ in front of the TV set, nothin’ much else to do. That’s certainly how it felt out in regional NSW where I grew up. Which is nowhere near as remote as Alice, where there was surely even less to do, and at an average temperature of stinking hot, next to no motivation to do it.

I’ve been thinking about the Australian experience of watching Doctor Who for a while now, but Alice has made me think about watching Doctor Who in isolation. I bet there are tales like this from all over the world – fans who found Doctor Who while living in remote corners of Asia, Europe and America, for whom the show was a regular dive into fantastic adventure. I bet there are people from Alice Springs who became fans. And I bet there are people in cities who found Doctor Who to be a respite from isolation of other kinds: bullying, loneliness or family dislocation.

It’s an experience now lost, because people who love Doctor Who today – the old series, the new series or both – are linked by the internet. Want to talk/argue/rant about the latest episode? You’ll find thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter and Gallifrey Base who want to join you. You could do it from Alice Springs or from any other far-flung corner of the earth with wifi. You can do it instantly and easily. It was not always like this. For many, watching in isolation was the norm.

It’s not that Doctor Who is special in this regard. All television – all media really – has the power to relieve isolation and to forge connections with people. But for me, I am often bemused by how different the modern experience of watching Doctor Who is to how I watched it growing up.

For a start, nearly all of the show is available at the flick of a cursor. That alone is mindblowing enough. Then there’s that it’s a mainstream phenomenon; not an odd, niche filler of a program, beloved of dorks and loners, but a palpable TV hit. All this plus the instant global community of Whoheads one can join with only a login, a password and a few thousand opinions.

Watched from this perspective, The Invasion of Time is just another story among many. One where all six episodes can be devoured at once, your enjoyment of it supplemented by special features, partwork magazines and online reviews. But watched from Alice Springs or a rural town in Canada or a village in New Zealand or wherever it is, I think it was something else altogether.

It was a weeknightly treat, an interspatial cruise. And something of a special event, too. The Doctor’s transformation into to roaring, bellicose tyrant was unsettling. The return of the Sontarans was a rare rematch with an old enemy. A tour through the labyrinthine TARDIS interior, which for some reason never looked, through a child’s eyes, so much like a shabby old hospital. The mythos of Gallifrey explored. The Vardans… well, they always looked rubbish, but you can’t have everything.

It was a lifeline, this show, to people watching all over the world. In a way which it isn’t as much anymore – or at least not in the same way. Which is good, right? We wouldn’t trade away the show’s newfound popularity and the technology that links us to fans all over the world.

But watching the show now is a completely different experience for those who used to watch in isolation. Sitting in front of the TV set, with nothing much else to do.

LINK TO The Unicorn and the Wasp: because Christopher Benjamin is in Unicorn etc, both feature cast members of The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

NEXT TIME: It’s always been you, Craig. Please finalise your purchases and head to the checkouts, it’s Closing Time.

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

goodman2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

What do you mean it’s been done?

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

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

Funny, scary and The Time Warrior (1973)

Time Warrior

I thought it would be fun, identifying links to these disparate stories. And it is; it’s part of the appeal of watching Doctor Who randomly. But, blimey, it can be difficult sometimes. I can’t tell you how many hours I wasted trying to find something which linked Death to the Daleks with Aliens of London. (Mostly because I didn’t actually count those hours. But it was more time than a grown man should spend wondering about these things. Still, you’re guilty of that too right? Please tell me you are.)

And so it was that I let out a little cheer when my random Who generator spat out The Time Warrior right after it spat out The Sontaran Stratagem. Hooray! An easy one. And so with some delight,  I’m mixing it up a bit this entry and starting with…

LINKS to The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky: They both have Sontarans in ’em. And they both feature UNIT. Job done!

But actually, there are many more links. It’s clear that The Sontaran Stratagem owes much to The Time Warrior and lovingly celebrates it. Many of The Time Warrior‘s greatest hits are replayed. The word ‘thorax’, memorably evoked in the former gets name checked in the latter. When the Tenth Doctor indulges in some plot exposition about the Sontarans’ achilles heel, their probic vent, he paraphrases the time warrior himself, Sontaran office Linx, saying it means they must always face their enemies. “Isn’t that brilliant?”, he gushes like a fanboy. Then there’s the famous cliffhanger to The Time Warrior Part One, where Linx takes off his helmet to reveal an equally dome like head. General Staal performs an encore in The Sontaran Stratagem. (In fact it’s repeated often in Sontaran stories; it’s their signature move).

Let’s linger on that moment for a moment: it’s sometimes stated that the genius of that moment is that it’s a joke – Linx’s head is the same shape as his helmet. And as jokes go, it’s fine. But it’s not a strong enough joke to be the cliffhanger to the first episode of a story, nay a season.

Remember that when Part One of The Time Warrior was broadcast, we didn’t know what a Sontaran was. We had no idea what was under that helmet. And that’s what writer Robert Holmes and director Alan Bromley wanted us to be thinking about throughout those opening 25 minutes… WTF is under that helmet?!

That cliffhanger is what we’ve been waiting for. Even when the moment comes, Linx delays our gratification a little further, giving a little sheepish glance to either side to see if anyone’s around. The Doctor’s there too, spying on Linx, as fascinated as us. Then Linx finally pulls off that helmet, and reveals that grotesque, troll-like head. Do we laugh? Maybe. Are we thrilled? Definitely. It’s funny/scary.

The Sontarans have come so familiar to us now, they’re part of the Doctor Who furniture. I think we forget how impressive that combination of costume, mask and performance is. Linx, as played by Kevin Lindsay, brings lots of scary. A gravelly voiced brute and strong as he is cunning. He easily wins a dust up with Jon Pertwee’s karate loving Doctor. I’m one of the children he frightened, because he could outwit you and beat you up; a villain and a monster.

He’s is a long way from Strax, the Eleventh Doctor’s bumbling Sontaran ally. Strax is dumb and funny. He’s a reluctant nurse. He can’t go two sentences without wishing for a weapon or spouting some bolshie nonsense. He’s funny and hugely popular. But he’s the end result of a gradual toning down of the Sontarans. They’ve now all but lost their Linxy menace and become entirely Straxy figures of fun. And one can hardly blame New Who’s producers for this; Sontarans are after all war mongering potatoes. There’s fun to be had, so we should have it. (And it’s telling that the only classic Doctor Who monster to make the leap to childrens’ series The Sarah Jane Adventure is the Sontarans. Altogether more fun than Cybermen or Daleks.)

Writer Robert Holmes, the master, of course knew that too. He intended it, and it shows throughout The Time Warrior. After all, the first thing Linx does is plant a natty little flag on the earth’s surface and claim the planet, its moons and satellites, purely for us to laugh at his pomposity. Later on he calls the philosophy of the Time Lords “egalitarian twaddle”. And when he finds out that humans come in both male and female varieties, he says “it is an inefficient system. You should change it.”

Holmes knew how to make a monster funny/scary, and frankly you can have your Slitheen, your Judoon and your Graske, this is how you do it. But when the Sontarans next come back, I’m hoping for as much scary as funny.

NEXT TIME: Boom! Boom? BOOM! Battlefield.