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Subversion, reassertion and Midnight (2008)

midnight

In a show as long running as Doctor Who, it’s inevitable you’re going to get episodes which are designed to challenge the series’ norms. Having it be the “monster of the week” every episode’s not creatively satisfying for production team or audience.

Hence, Midnight is one of those episodes which subverts everything the show usually does. In it, the Doctor (David Tennant) is stripped of his hero status, humiliated and helpless, his standard tricks made useless. The standard Doctor Who monster is replaced by an invisible, unknowable force; its origins and motives never explained. And human beings, so often championed in 21st century Who as being amazing, inspirational creatures capable of so much, are seen here to quickly descend into vindictive self-preservation. In doing so, they disprove everything the Doctor has ever said about their brilliance and potential.

Midnight sets out to be the antidote to the show’s usual optimism about humanity, but that determination to find the heroic in the everyday proves a hard mold to break. Among its cast of bickering humans, it zeros in on one who goes on a character arc which describes 21st Doctor Who’s most prominent theme: that the Doctor can inspire ordinary human beings to acts of great heroism. It does this by tracing that character’s Orpheus-like journey into the underworld of selfishness and fear, and subsequent emergence by using Doctor-like logic and courage to save the day.

That character is the Hostess (Rakie Ayola). Forgive me for retelling the plot at you for a bit, but I think what’s interesting is how writer Russell T Davies uses her as a structural component of the script. It’s the Hostess who pushes the plot along, ramps up the tension in specific steps and then does an about turn which saves the day. Whoever said plot and character are the same thing would find an instructive example in Midnight.

At the story’s start, the Hostess seems like a purely functional character. She’s there to welcome passengers aboard this pleasure trip and her demeanour tells us it’s not a job she enjoys. When the Doctor tries to engage her in cheery conversation, she looks at him with weary politeness, just wanting to get on with her job. But crucially, she notices the distinctiveness of his turn of phrase, that jaunty “allons-y”.

The other passengers are utterly ordinary people. A holidaying family, a professor (of Which University) and his protégé.  When their fellow passenger, the solitary Sky Sylvestry (Leslie Sharp) becomes possessed by the invisible creature, they act not like the courageous, noble humans of so many other Davies stories, but with fear and suspicion. The Doctor corrals them and the Hostess to the back of the ship and tries to convince them to simply keep their distance from Sky until the rescue ship arrives. As ingenious plans go, its practical, but not up to his usual standard.

Unfortunately, he can’t restrain the humans’ tendency to lash out. Davies ramps up the stakes in a series of reveals from the humans, each one punctuated by a dramatic sting in Murray Gold’s instrumental music. And the Hostess plays the pivotal role of influencer. She’s always the one to say what everyone else is thinking.

First, the Hostess says, “We should throw her out.” Cue sting!

It’s the first admission that at least one of them is thinking of a murderous pre-emptive strike on Sky. The Doctor just about manages to hose that one down, helped by the general belief that it’s not technically possible.

But then Dee Dee (Ayesha Antoine) says, “Yes we can,” and explains that a human jettison is possible, if done within 6 seconds. Sting!

And although Dee Dee makes the suggestion, it’s the Hostess who provides the practical method. “I wouldn’t risk the cabin door twice, but we’ve got that one,” she says, pointing out an alternative. “All we need to do is grab hold of her and throw her out.” The ethically questionable action which had been ruled out as impossible, is now feasible. The Doctor then calms debate down again, this time on the grounds of common humanity, asking if any one of them are prepared to become killers.

Again, the Hostess prompts the next development in this argument, saying “I’d do it.” Sting!

The cat is out of the bag again as the others admit that in order to save their own lives, they are prepared to commit murder. The Hostess falls back on her job description as justification, “It’s my job to see that this vessel is safe,” she says. The others panic and pile on. Having failed on grounds of practicality and moral values, the Doctor resorts to threats. He says if they want to throw Sky out, they’ll have to throw him out too.

Once more, it’s the Hostess who tells it like it is. “Okay,” she says. Sting!

And the mood shifts to questioning the Doctor. Who he is, why he’s on board, why he seems to relish the situation so. It’s here that we begin to sense the Doctor losing. We realise how flimsy the Doctor’s story must appear, when given the slightest scrutiny and without a companion by his side to back him up. When challenged about his assumed moral superiority and the right he has to take control of the situation, his response is desperate and arrogant.

“Because I’m clever,” he says, and that’s the moment where he loses everyone’s respect.

The Doctor usually wins by inspiring others to be their best, but here all he has done is alienate and antagonise them. They take offence, and when he tries to fob them off with his usual lazy pseudonym, John Smith, they don’t believe a word of it. At this point, there really is nothing to stop them from throwing him out of the ship. As the Hostess, points out, “He’s practically volunteered,” providing a moral justification for ejecting him. He’s a liar, a braggart and, by protecting Sky, a danger to them all.

When the creature finally captures the Doctor’s voice, his deconstruction becomes complete. He’s left paralysed and babbling on the floor. But former antagonists, the Hostess and Dee Dee, start to put two and two together.

While the others are preparing to throw the Doctor out, spurred on by the Sky/Creature, they start behaving like the Doctor. They notice the logical flaws in the creature’s story. They look objectively at the evidence. It’s a sudden about-face, but crucially it’s because they have both listened to what the Doctor has said. When the creature uses the Doctor’s favourite phrase, “allons-y,” the penny drops and the Hostess expels Sky and herself in the process.

You can see this self-sacrifice as being consistent with the Hostess’s sense of duty to “keep this vessel safe.” Or it could be seen as penance for her earlier suspicion of the Doctor and her stoking of tensions throughout the event. But I see it as the series snapping back into its basic shape. The story needs someone to be the Doctor, and if he’s incapacitated or all his usual strategies are neutralised as they are here, someone else will step up. His very presence will inspire scared, prejudiced humans to be better people, by using their intelligence to inspire acts of bravery and self-sacrifice.

In setting out to disprove Doctor Who’s fundamental tenet, Midnight actually reasserts it. While the rest of the cast are utterly broken at the story’s end, their relationships in tatters, their personal integrity destroyed – the Hostess proves once again why the Doctor loves humans so much. She just took the long way around.

LINK TO Genesis of the Daleks: TARDIS Wikia tells me that “This is the first televised story since Genesis of the Daleks in 1975 not to feature the TARDIS.” And talking of the long way around…

NEXT TIME… We’re off to Space Glasgow and we’re Hell Bent.

 

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Reverence, irreverence and The Shakespeare Code (2007)

shakespeare

In the newfound Twitch-inspired spirit of “London, 1965!” let’s head back for a moment to The ChaseSo many wacky things happen in that story, but among my favourites is when the Doctor and co take possession of a big television, upon which they could watch any event in all of space and time. Given free rein on this miraculous device, all Barbara wants to do is tune in to see Shakespeare throwing around ideas for new plays with Elizabeth I and Francis Bacon. Any kids watching as an Saturday escape from the weekday grind of school must have groaned. All of time and space filled with Daleks and Zarbi and she wants to watch Shakespeare?!

But it’s typical of classic Doctor Who, which loved Shakespeare from afar, but never sought to meet him in person. The Doctor never travelled back in time to meet him and have an exciting adventure in doublet and hose (which when you think about, seems perfect for Season 2). And though he once claimed to have done some light secretarial work for Shakespeare, he might have just been trying to impress a beautiful woman, probably.

For 20th century Who, Shakespeare was there only to be reverentially alluded toIts various producers never mined Shakespeare for plots. It robbed other works of fiction shamelessly, from The Prisoner of Zenda to High Rise, but we never got the Doctor Who version of Twelfth Night or Macbeth. We never even got a trip back to meet Richard III or Henry V to compare them to their  Shakespearean depictions.

Instead, the show referenced the Bard through quotes, often with a knowing wink to the audience. The first Doctor quoted The Merchant of Venice while the sixth loved Hamlet. But the fourth was the greatest Shakespeare fan. Tom Baker never missed an opportunity to insert a few lines in a quick audition for the RSC. My favourite is, “out out, dusty death” after a Cybermat was killed with gold dust, but no doubt you have your own.

All this is to say that old Doctor Who kept a respectful distance from Shakespeare. But new Who likes to put its literary heroes centre stage. So Doctor Who meets Shakespeare seems not only like a cracking idea for adventure, but also long overdue.

*****

In The Chase, Shakespeare is the mousy, middle-aged, high foreheaded figure we know from his portraits. In The Shakespeare Code, he’s a handsome young buck, played with schoolboy charm by Dean Lennox Kelly. This type of Shakespeare was a recent innovation in 2007. The irreverent influence of 1998’s slick, self-aware cinema hit Shakespeare in Love was still palpable.

Shakespeare in Love also portrays Shakespeare as a young, bawdy rock star figure. He’s played by handsome Joseph Fiennes, as a character whose literary genius makes him attractive to many around him, and not just the ladies. He dashes about in a flappy shirt, a tight leather jacket and a single stud earring. He fights and quips and drinks and wins the girl, who’s dressed as a boy. He’s the unmistakable hero of the piece, and a long way from that bookish looking fellow with the pinched face, the ruff and the goatee.

The Shakespeare Code not only mirrors Shakespeare in Love’s take on Shakespeare; it also adopts its jokey, self-referential tone. In both, Shakespeare hears his own famous lines being quoted back at him and modern day affectations, like fans asking for signatures and therapists’ sessions, are aped. In both, the Master of the Revels is a sneering threat and Queen Elizabeth makes a cameo. Both are comic, knockabout adventures.

Except that in The Shakespeare Code,  Shakespeare is not the hero. There’s our tall, flappy coated Doctor (David Tennant) for that. So Shakespeare has to play second fiddle to him here, rushing around behind him and Martha (Freema Agyeman) like an extra companion. Like our other celebrity historicals, he’s enlisted into the Doctor’s coterie to help save the day. And in a trait common to lots of 21st century Who (but particularly noticeable in stories written by Gareth Roberts), the guest character has to step up and save the day, when the Doctor needs help. Here Shakespeare is inspired by the Doctor to find the words which seals the witchy Carrionites’ fate. After years of the Doctor taking his cue from Shakespeare, it’s nice to see how that works in reverse.

***

This is the first of Roberts’ many scripts for the series, and the last one to be Randomed, so it’s worth thinking about his contribution to the show. In fact, it would  be shirking a difficult topic not to. His episodes are well regarded, but lately, he’s been provoking fierce reactions through Twitter account, which often expresses his disdain for the political left. He also offended many with a couple of ill-considered tweets about trans people. All of this means there is a distinctly critical prevailing view of him at the moment.

It would be a shame, though, to discount his Doctor Who episodes, which are consistently smart, witty and well constructed. It took until Series 3 for Roberts to be added to the show’s writing retinue, but once he was, he quickly became a regular fixture, presumably because of his ability to reliably deliver good quality scripts. The Shakespeare Code is typical of his work: regularly funny, with a string of good one-liners, but also well plotted, hitting the right beats and the right time, creating interesting characters and using them as counter-points to the Doctor. You can see why Russell T Davies and later Steven Moffat kept inviting him back. He always delivered the goods.

Whether he’ll be invited back though… well, who can say? It seems unlikely. But for now, what we have are six better than average episodes written (or co-written) by someone whose public persona is as a provocateur, a sideline commentator, an occasional contrarian and for some, it must be said, an unforgivable transphobe. It’s an interesting dichotomy if you’re attracted to his creative work, but not to his politics or the way he expresses himself.

But because of that, I’d argue that how we view The Shakespeare Code and his other work, has changed since 2007. And how we view that work in future years, of course, remains to be seen. But I think this is Doctor Who’s fandom’s first struggle (at least in the 21st century) between recognising the quality of a piece of work, while finding its creator’s views objectionable. Can we no longer bring ourselves to do the former, because of the latter? But for some, that’s absolutely going to be the case.

****

Back to that moment in The Chase. If only Hartnell and Co had twisted that dial a little further backwards, they might have been able to watch the events of The Shakespeare Code on that big ol’ TV. What would the first Doctor have made of it?

VICKI: Look! There’s a young, dashing Doctor with a black assistant! (Doctor sits down in shock)

BARBARA: And Shakespeare’s a spunk! (Doctor loses consciousness)

IAN: And in the space year 2017, the writer of this adventure causes a furore by offending trans people everywhere! (Doctor keels over and regenerates)

LINK TO… Mission to the UnknownDid Roberts name his heroine in Planet of the Dead after Mission actor Edward De Souza? For the purposes of this link, let’s say yes.

NEXT TIME: Let’s stick with that particular TARDIS team and watch them put some Morok arms in Xeron hands while visiting The Space Museum

Albert, George and Tooth and Claw (2006)

doctorwho-toothandclaw11

PRINCE ALBERT: Ah, Sir George. Absolutely wunderbah to see you again!

SIR GEORGE MacLEISH: Your Highness… (out of breath) ah… ah… you honour us with your presence… (wheeze) … yet again.

ALBERT: But my dear fellow, why are you so exhausted? Whatever have you been doing?

GEORGE: I’ve just finished… varnishing all the doors… and walls…

ALBERT: Oh that’s right.

GEORGE: With mistletoe oil.

ALBERT: I wondered what that smell was.

GEORGE: At your command.

ALBERT: And the wood carvings?

GEORGE: All done, your highness. Every door.

ALBERT: And the light chamber?

GEORGE: Installed in the observatory. It was right bugger getting that up the stairs.

ALBERT: But you’ve made sure it looks like…

GEORGE: Yes, your highness, it looks just like a telescope.

ALBERT: Very important that no one suspects its true purpose!

GEORGE: Only thing is… it only pivots along one arc.

ALBERT: So?

GEORGE: Well, we’re trying to capture the light of the full moon, right? But with the scope of the thing fixed along one arc, we have to wait until the moon is in exactly the right space, and that will only happen at specific times. If the moon’s not in exactly the right place at exactly the right moment, we’re stuffed.

ALBERT: You worry too much, Sir George. Though your language is charmingly rustic!

GEORGE: The thing is, your highness, the whole plan’s a bit like that.

ALBERT: Brilliantly ingenious, you mean?

GEORGE: No, I mean dependent on dangerously unlikely coincidences. Take the diamond, for example. You’re busy getting it cut to exactly the right design to reflect and focus the moonlight.

ALBERT: And when I’m gone, the Queen will take it to Helier and Carew, the royal jewellers at Hazlehead. Every year! To be recut! I won’t bother telling her this of course, but she’s a remarkable woman, she’ll work it out.

GEORGE: But how will the jewellers know when to stop? Cut too much away and presumably the diamond won’t work.

ALBERT: Well… I will take them into my confidence and explain what we’re doing so they know what’s going on.

GEORGE: Me first, please. And anyway, giving the Queen a pilgrimage to Hazlehead via my house just puts her in jeopardy. Annually. Why not just tell her to stay away from the place?

ALBERT: But that’s the whole point, Sir George. We’re going to kill the beast with the Koh-i-noor and the Koh-i-noor is always with the Queen.

GEORGE: Thereby putting her at maximum risk. I don’t know why I’m worried, though, because it’s probably never going to happen.

ALBERT: I don’t see why not.

GEORGE: Think about it, your highness. For a start, the Queen has to be travelling to Hazlehead and plan to stop at my house on a night with a full moon. And not just any full moon, but one which traverses the arc covered by the light chamber disguised as a telescope. Then she’ll have to find her way into the library, to research the nature of the wolf, and deduce that she needs to lead it to the observatory and have the diamond with her.

ALBERT: I think that sounds perfectly plausible!

GEORGE: So then the Queen, the wolf and the diamond all have to be in the observatory at exactly the right time. The light chamber has to be pointing at exactly the right spot at the sky and at precisely the right moment, the Queen has to place the diamond on exactly the right spot on the floor, at the right orientation, to produce the deadly moonlight ray. Even then, the wolf has to be standing in exactly the right spot for the beam to hit it.

And here’s another thing: we don’t even know it’s going to work. We’re just assuming that concentrated moonlight is going to kill the creature. It’s completely untested and if it doesn’t work, you’ll have left the Queen in a room with a werewolf, with only a finely cut diamond and a pretend telescope with which to defend herself.

ALBERT: Well, I don’t see any alternative.

GEORGE: Really?

ALBERT: If we don’t do this, what other possible plan could there be?

GEORGE:

ALBERT: Well, what?

GEORGE: We TELL someone, your highness! We tell the Queen, or the military or basically anyone so they know what we’re trying to do!

ALBERT: You dummkopf! No one would ever believe us.

GEORGE: You’re the Prince Consort, your highness. You could tell them we’re building a staircase to Mars and they’d have to do it.

ALBERT: Staircase to Mars, you say…

GEORGE: Your highness, please let’s focus on one thing at a time. Let’s tell someone what we’re doing. Someone with more weapons and resources and strategic skill than just the royal jewellers at Hazlehead. Or let’s tell the Queen, and she can order the army to do all this while she stays at home safe and sound. At least let’s write down our plan, so someone might one day find it and understand it…

ALBERT: Enough, Sir George! You worry too much. It will all come together in some pleasingly convenient way. No doubt, something will just drop out of the sky, and tie all these various elements into a coherent whole. The plan will work perfectly and the beast will be slain.

GEORGE: We could just go now, and find the wolf and…

ALBERT: Uh uh.

GEORGE: Or, we could put out some poisoned baits…

ALBERT: Now George, don’t worry about it. It will all be fine.

GEORGE: Sure. As long as clouds down obscure the moon at the crucial moment.

ALBERT: Forget the plan, you beautiful idiot! Haven’t you worked it out yet?

GEORGE: Worked what out?

ALBERT: All these late night conversations? All these trips to Scotland? It’s all a cover! An elaborate ruse so that we can be together!

GEORGE: It’s a what now?

ALBERT: Kiss me, you fool!

GEORGE: Oh.

 

LINK TO 100,000 BC: Hairy beasts!

NEXT TIME: we embark on a Mission to the Unknown… and one other random episode to go with it.

Slapstick, semiotics and The Unicorn and the Wasp (2008)

uniwasp

In the middle of The Unicorn and the Wasp, there’s a standout scene where the Doctor (dishy David Tennant) is poisoned after drinking a spiked lemonade. Cue an outrageous slapstick scene where he staggers to the kitchen to ingest a miscellany of random ingredients to order to “stimulate the inhibited enzymes into reversal” (hmmm, sounds sciencey). First ginger beer, then walnuts, anchovies… all accompanied by a frantic game of charades with companion Donna (Flapper, not slapper, Catherine Tate). The punchline to this elaborate joke of a scene is the delivery of a smooch from Donna to shock the Doctor’s system into expelling the noxious substance from his body in the form of a foul gas. From his mouth.

In the middle of this sly and witty murder mystery, here is a moment of pure slapstick. The elaborate physicality, the overplayed reactions, the knocking of over of all sorts… in fact, this could be Doctor Who’s ultimate slapstick moment. (Sorry, that sounds like one of those cheap clip shows which periodically materialize to eat away your time. “Doctor Who’s top 5 ultimate slapstick moments!” an excited voice over would announce, over a tinny version of the theme music and miscellany of publicity photos of past Doctors, flying at the screen).

It doesn’t get mentioned much, but slapstick has a proud history in Doctor Who, despite 80s producer John Nathan-Turner’s much stated opinion that comedy in the series was about wit, never slapstick. He was true to word, at least for the first few years of his producership. Later on, he presided over Bannermen being pelted by jars of honey, milkshakes being poured over café goers heads and the Kandyman being immobilised with soft drink… so he must have got over that particular bias.

JN-T used to talk disdainfully about slapstick in order to differentiate his era from the show as produced by Graham Williams, which fan lore held that was altogether too silly. But slapstick had long been part of Doctor Who’s approach: The Romans had comedy fisticuffs, The Seeds of Death a dash through a hall of mirrors and the Doctor smothered in a deluge of foam. Even the po-faced Pertwee years found a few minutes to run over a tramp with a hovercraft.

It was Russell T Davies, though, who truly reveled in slapstick moments in Doctor Who, from the Doctor and Rose’s madcap dash from the Hoix in Love & Monsters, to the Doctor’s expulsion of radiation into his shoe in Smith and Jones. Davies was never afraid of making the show look silly, in the way which seemed to terrify Nathan-Turner (at least until he dropped green gunge over Balazar’s face in The Mysterious Planet). He knew that slapstick was a delightfully sweet treat within an otherwise dramatic episode.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is something different, though. It is, as Davies acknowledged in The Writer’s Tale, his first attempt at an all-out Doctor Who comedy and slapstick is only one of the tactics used, in a kind of mixed lolly bag of comic approaches. (Though for a comedy, it has some grim undertones. It does, after all, feature an alcoholic mother who loses both her sons on the same day. Fun times!).

For a start, there’s pastiche. This is not just a Doctor Who version of an Agatha Christie story. It a Doctor Who version of the television adaptations of Agatha Christie novels. You’ll know them as handsome Sunday night viewing: large casts, beautiful costumes, stunning locations and faithful recreations of times gone by. The story’s structure lifts familiar scenes from these adaptations – the dinner disrupted by murder, the gathering of suspects together for the big reveal. Even the filmic trappings of murder mysteries – flashbacks, spinning newspapers et al – are employed. At one stage, Donna’s eating popcorn like she’s watching the whole thing on TV. We know how she feels.

Then there are in-jokes. The constant quoting of Christie book titles. Donna’s pre-knowledge of Christie’s work. The deliberate evocations of, of all things, Cluedo. And the moment where Donna questions why Christie is experiencing events similar to her own plots. It’s a pleasant surprise when it turns out the butler didn’t do it. It’s so self-knowing it hurts, perhaps the most self-knowing the show has been since the infamous moment in Dragonfire (itself no stranger to slapstick), when a character quoted a Doctor Who academic book about the “semiotic thickness of a performed text.” Which in turn only added to Doctor Who’s semiotic thickness.

On top of all this, it’s just funny. Barely a scene goes by without a joke, verbal or visual. You can choose your own favourite, but mine’s how Davenport (Daniel Hill) sheepishly pokes his head out of Roger’s (Adam Rayner) bedroom door during the corridor scene. But that’s closely followed in my affections by:

DONNA: It’s a giant wasp.

DOCTOR: What do you mean, a giant wasp?

DONNA: I mean, a WASP that’s GIANT!

What I’m getting around to saying is that Doctor Who has often used comedic techniques in the past, just never before all at once. And thinking about this episode and how it mixes genres and comic forms made me ask: when does it stop being homage and start being spoof?

Doctor Who skirts this line occasionally. Other examples include Delta and the Bannermen, City of Death, The Gunfighters and The Feast of Steven. But I think spoofs (spooves?) prioritise the gags over telling a consistent, logical story. We’re yet to have the Doctor Who equivalent of Flying High for example (no, Time-Flight doesn’t count) because Doctor Who is never just a string of jokes. And The Unicorn and the Wasp is certainly more than a string of jokes; the weaving in of Christie’s story of lost love and self doubt gives the story a contrasting element of pathos.

But it’s an unusual experience watching this constantly self-referential story, so eager to invite us all to be in on its extended joke. Christie’s personal crisis aside, there’s barely a moment which isn’t winking conspiratorially at the viewer. It’s Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel, while saying to its audience, “Look! This is Doctor Who mimicking a TV version of an Agatha Christie novel! With a big slapstick routine and a WASP that’s GIANT!”

The semiotics of a performed text has never been so thick.

LINK TO The Angels Take Manhattan: Talking of genre… as this story takes up murder mystery, The Angels Take Manhattan is Doctor Who doing film noir.

NEXT TIME: Talking of self-knowing references… Even the sonic screwdriver won’t get us out of this one. It’s time for The Invasion of Time.

 

 

 

Domesticity, sentimentality and Fear Her (2006)

fearher

One of the earliest things we learned about the Doctor upon his 21st century return was that he “doesn’t do domestic.” But oddly enough, by the time he got to his second series, he was breaking his own rule fairly regularly. In both The Idiot’s Lantern and Fear Her, we find him and Rose (David Tennant and Billie Piper, at their most smug and loved up) making home visits and confronting the results of family violence.

When talking about The Idiot’s Lantern, I was concerned that this is too raw subject matter for the show to deal with. Fear Her goes there again, but this time uses it as the thematic base of the story. By which I mean, The Idiot’s Lantern featured a family fractured by an abusive father, but that plot element was not connected to its main plot about a monster sucking people into TVs.

Fear Her features a similarly fractured family and a child dealing with the aftermath of abuse from her father. But here, the plot about the alien Isolus, isolated from its own kind, scared of being alone, recovering from a traumatic event and needing love to heal itself, mirrors the situation of its host, Chloe (Abisola Agbaje).

Tales of spooky children abound in 21st century Who and in sci-fi and horror more generally. But this story is clearly riffing off Chocky, the terrifically unsettling novella by John Wyndham, turned into an equally unsettling TV series by 70s Doctor Who script editor Anthony Read. In both of those, a young boy, Matthew, has his mind infiltrated by an alien intelligence, wanting to form an emotional link. (Interestingly, in the TV version, the boy’s artistic abilities massively improve, and drawing becomes his means of self expression). As in Fear Her, the boy’s parents are worried and bewildered.

In Chocky, the threat to Matthew is external; government forces want to capture and harness the alien within him. The threat to Chloe is created from within her – a simulacrum of her vengeful Dad, hiding in the closet within her bedroom. Much of Fear Her is set in that bedroom, and that’s significant because bedrooms are places of sanctuary and safety, where imagined worlds are created. That’s the Isolus’s power too. It creates worlds to retreat into and play, but Chloe’s world is full of fear and guilt and that’s what creates her monster, which starts off as purely internalised but threatens to emerge into the real world.

As twee as it may seem, the ending where mother and daughter sing Kookaburra sits in the Old Gum Tree to neutralise the emerging father demon works within the theme of families recovering from trauma. The solution to Chloe’s problem is for Mum Trish (Nina Sosanya) to acknowledge and engage with her daughter’s pain. As with the Isolus, Chloe’s reunited with her family. Doctor Who fans don’t always like it when the series wades into the waters of family drama. But at least in Fear Her, plot, theme, genre and character sync satisfyingly together.

Just how, though, do the Olympics fit into this? I fear the answer is, not well. This is a story which could easily have been set in 2006 rather than 2012 and if there’s a thematic link between the Olympics and Chloe’s story, it’s pretty thin. There’s a half-hearted attempt in Trish’s dialogue to link it the theme of togetherness, when she says to Chloe, “tonight they’ll light the Olympic Flame in the stadium, and the whole world will be looking at our city. I mean, doesn’t that make you feel part of something?” But other than that, it seems an arbitrary creative choice.

The Olympics bring two unwelcome elements to proceedings; sentimentality and a lack of believability. The lack of believability is inherent. Setting any story in the near future means the audience is immediately doubting its accuracy because we know that everything about the setting is guessed at. But setting it during a future Olympics is even riskier, because they are events with which viewers are familiar.

We know these are enormous, carefully stage managed, yet disruptive events. We know they command massive crowds, not modest gaggles of streetside onlookers. We know the day of the opening ceremony isn’t spent fixing potholes in suburban cul de sacs. We know random strangers aren’t allowed to pick up the Olympic torch, let alone light the Olympic cauldron. All these missteps make Fear Her’s best future guesses look a little naive.

Then there’s the sentimentality, an element the show indulges in only occasionally, usually for anniversaries, regenerations and Christmas specials. The lighting of the Olympic torch is one of those big, showcase moments that Russell T Davies’s version of the show majored in. But it’s also cloyingly saccharine. The aforementioned Kookaburra song moment might work in terms of the plot, but that too is a little more schmaltzy than the series normally goes for. And everyone lives, again.

But I suspect that for a mainstream , non production code memorising section of the audience, this isn’t so much of a problem. On the commentary, for instance, Exec Producer Julie Gardner talks about how moving she found this episode. And as a parent, I find it difficult not to empathise with a story about wanting to help a troubled child, but being afraid and powerless to do so.

But some stories’ reputations are hard to ignore and Fear Her is, as polls go, this century’s The Twin Dilemma. Why it’s so disliked, I’m not sure, but having just come from The Web of Fear, which placed robot yeti in the London Underground in a strange mix of action adventure and mythic mysticism, I’m reminded that although juxtaposition is what Doctor Who does, it sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Fear Her is just as unlikely combination of elements as those that make up Web, and is in many ways a more sophisticated story. But perhaps they don’t coalesce quite as well to tell a story that compels and thrills in the way we expect the series to.

The other thing is, of course, its concentration on a story sticking close to home, with parents and children and bedrooms and living rooms and so on. There’s been plenty of these stories since 2005, but none of them bother the top levels of the “best of” polls much. Seems like we’re with the Doctor on this one; we don’t like it when he does domestic.

LINK TO The Web of Fear: Juxtaposition. Possession. Plus they both have “fear” in their titles!

NEXT TIME: Reptilian. Biped. A completely alien species! Report forthwith to a date with Doctor Who and The Silurians.

Hawks, doves and The Christmas Invasion (2005)

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The ghost of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart hangs around the final scenes of The Christmas Invasion. Back in 1970’s Spearhead from Space, he mentioned how humans had been sending probes deeper and deeper into space. “We’ve drawn attention to ourselves,” he said ominously, moustache twitching with deep portent.

David Tennant’s skinny, sassy Doctor has just seen off the slave trading Sycorax in the space of about 10 minutes, but still he’s cautious. He all but quotes his old friend. Though he’s got quite the gob, so he uses far more words to say it: “And the human race is drawing attention to itself. Every day you’re sending out probes and messages and signals. This planet’s so noisy. You’re getting noticed more and more.”

His words spook Harriet Jones, Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton). It’s been a bad day at the office. She’s just been through an alien invasion she was powerless to stop, she’s seen two men die in front of her and had the fate of half the world rest on her ability to negotiate her way out of an impossible situation.  She’s been in charge when the Doctor didn’t show up, and it’s terrified her.

So she takes a decision to blow up the alien threat rather than let them escape. In doing so, she’s channeling he Brigadier. He took the same pragmatic choice when he blew up the Silurians, again in 1970, in a desperate attempt to end a story which had already gone on for seven episodes. The difference then was we never got to see the Doctor confront his military friend about his act of murder, masquerading as defence.

Here, the Doctor forces Harriet to justify her choice. This she does, with hawkish pragmatism. “You said yourself, Doctor, they’d go back to the stars and tell others about the Earth. I’m sorry, Doctor, but you’re not here all the time… They died right in front of me while you were sleeping. In which case we have to defend ourselves.” The Doctor is, of course, disgusted. “But that’s murder,” he said in 1970 and so he repeats, “that was murder” in 2005. Apart from that, he doesn’t bother to try to counter her arguments. He just starts tossing around threats.

More of that later. But first, it’s interesting that writer Russell T Davies is specifically referencing those two stories from 1970 (three, if we note that trouble with aliens abducting a British space craft was core to The Ambassadors of Death). He even goes to the extent of quoting them, almost word for word. He’s reminding us of the time when the Doctor had an uncomfortable relationship with his Earthbound allies. And also of a time when a new Doctor made a barnstorming entrance, signalling a major shift in the tone and focus of the series. David Tennant’s Doctor signals as significant a progression for the series as Pertwee, colour and exile to Earth did.

Tennant’s Doctor is different to Pertwee’s though, in that he’s unafraid to meter out punishment if you cross him. When the Sycorax leader goes back on his word to leave Earth, and instead redoubles his attack, the Doctor has no hesitation in triggering the trap door which sends the bad guy plummeting to the ground. “No second chances,” he says grimly. That goes for Harriet too.

As his argument with her escalates, he warns her of the consequences of messing with him. And when she shows no remorse, he decides to bring down her government by whispering six words in the ear of right hand man, Alex (Adam Garcia, formerly a red hot tap dancer back in Australia. Mrs Spandrell was very keen on him.) It’s a handy trick. I wish he would fall to Earth now and perform that same feat in the USA.

Anyway, the point is that this Doctor is not a man to cross.In some ways, that rift with Harriet marks the tenth Doctor out as political; he’s against pre-emptive military action. Or maybe it’s simpler than that – he just against the sneaky tactics of clobbering someone from behind.

Either way, he’s unafraid to lose friends when he thinks they’ve done the wrong thing. Later he watches Harriet on TV, flustered by questions about her health, engulfed in the PR storm he’s just conjured up with a six word magic spell. He stands there in his new glasses and paper Christmas hat and watches his former friend’s world collapse around her, and he’s unmoved.

This will of steel is something he has in common with his predecessor, who watched dispassionately as Cassandra burst apart and who dumped failed companion Adam back to Earth with window in his forehead. But then unlike the ninth Doctor, he does domestic. He has Christmas dinner with Jackie (Camille Coduri) and Mickey (Noel Clarke), something the last him flatly refused to do. Indeed his whole attitude to Jackie and Mickey has softened. He physically embraces them – again something he previously wouldn’t have had a bar of. So although he’s just as uncompromising as Dr 9, he’s a far more accessible and relaxed with his human buddies.

There’s one last moment that underlines Doctor Tennant’s refusal to let his human compadres take the easy way out. At the story’s end, when he goes to grab Rose’s hand to run off together for further adventures, she shies away a little because it means holding the hand he recently grew back. “That hand still gives me the creeps,” she says. But he doesn’t offer her the other one. He insists she takes the one that freaks her out. It’s a tiny little moment, but it just reinforces that this Doctor doesn’t let you off easy.

One last thing to note. This is the story which starts to develop Mickey and Jackie as characters, beyond being handbrakes on Rose’s TARDIS adventuring. Mickey gets his first heroic moment when he outmanoeuvres the robot Santas and Jackie plays both caring matriarch and comic relief (I particularly love her reminding Mickey to note down how much internet he uses, even though only moments ago they were nearly killed by a rampaging Christmas tree). They are, at last, the Doctor’s allies, Earth-bound but ready to help out when needed. Pertwee had his UNIT family. Tennant has the Tyler family. The Brigadier would be pleased.

LINK TO The Power of Kroll: both were originally broadcast on/around Christmas time.

NEXT TIME… The walls need sponging and there’s a sinister puddle. We’ll take care of it and The Caretaker too.

 

Words, pictures and Partners in Crime (2008)

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I found myself listening to the DVD commentary track on Partners in Crime. It features Execs Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner plus director James Strong and they make for jolly company. Davies is in ebullient form, gushing over various aspects of the production, explaining his creative choices with confidence and generally laughing at the sheer unlikeliness of it all. Gardner is equally fulsome, quick to address the episode’s technical faults but still clearly loving it none the less. Strong is a more reserved, but wry and happy to be the butt of good-hearted barbs about any directorial shortcomings.

Funnily enough, I’d also listened to the commentary track on the recently randomed Journey’s End. That one’s even more uproarious and features Davies, David Tennant and Catherine Tate. They keep it together well enough, until Tate abandons talking about Doctor Who and reveals news about her new kitten. (The name? I wouldn’t spoil it for you, but it brings the house down). Laughs galore. Hooray. Marvellous.

I mention all this because of the aura it gives off – of a program created by people who love what they do, who get along famously, and who have a heartily good time making it. These DVD commentaries are texts of their own, they suggest a working environment for late RTD era Who of grand behind-the-scene bonhomie. It all sounds like immense fun.

*****

A book I return to time and time again is The Writer’s Tale, by Davies and DWM feature writer Benjamin Cook. It’s a magnificent blow by blow account of Davies making Doctor Who from 2007-2010. The book’s two authors correspond via email and Davies is incredibly candid about the pressures involved in making the show. And although his humour and mischievousness still shine through, a lot of the book shows the melancholy and loneliness of creating a TV show, the size, scope and expectations of which are bewildering. It contrasts strongly with the green room party feel of those commentary tracks.

(Oh, that book. It’s addictive. On occasion, I’ll decide to just dip into quickly to check something or other. Two hours later I’m still reading it. Anything else scheduled gets abandoned. Honestly, it should come with a warning.)

The book starts with the production of series 4, and so Partners in Crime is featured heavily. We get to trace it from conception through the broadcast, and it’s one of those stories that went through many changes. It always featured a new companion, until Catherine Tate was wooed back. It was going to feature furry beasts called the Vorlax, before the squishy Adipose were conceived. It also featured Donna’s Dad played by Howard Attfield, right through to filming, until ill health forced him out and he was replaced by Bernard Cribbins as Wilf.

All this is recounted in The Writers’ Tale, including a number of production snafus which irritated Davies. When Penny (Verona Joseph) is found hiding in a toilet cubicle, she’s right next to the one in which Donna’s hiding, despite Davies’ specific instructions. When two of Miss Foster’s (Sarah Lancashire) guards are electrocuted, it’s through an archway, not a doorway as Davies conceived.

In the book, these niggles really get under Davies’ skin. But on the commentary track, they’re playfully brought up to needle at Strong. Clearly, time had soothed RTD’s crankiness by the time he’d got to record the commentary. But still we’re left with two contrasting views of the making of the series; one dominated by Davies’ jolly, gregarious public persona and one in The Writers’ Tale, which shows a private persona which is highly stressed, constantly working and constantly self-doubting. And not just on Partners in Crime,  but on all those stories up until The End of Time. The Writer’s Tale pulls back the curtain and shows how ridiculously hard it is to make Doctor Who, behind the cheerful facade of its makers.

I wonder if the Moff will put out a similar book when he leaves. What about one which was the collected emails between him and RTD? I bet that would be eye-opening. I’d have to write off a full month.

*****

The Writers’ Tale also reveals RTD to be a cartoonist of some considerable skill. The book is peppered with sketches illustrating scenes from scripts in development and used by Davies as a way of demonstrating his vision for the final product. This shows Davies as a writer who conceives his stories in images, a truly visual storyteller. This month, a new book Now We Are Six Hundred, is released, jam-packed with Davies’ cartoons.

And Partners in Crime has a cartoony style to it. The charmingly cute fat babies, the Adipose, are creations straight out of Pixar. The screwball style of the Warner Brothers cartoons is evident too; not just Miss Foster’s temporary levitation (complete with eyes bulging in surprise) before falling to her death, which as Davies says on the commentary is pure Wile E Coyote. But also the scene of the Doctor and Donna popping up from behind cubicles like meerkats, but always just missing each other. And Penny escaping tied to a chair.

Not to mention that when the Doctor and Donna give us the conversation behind two windows routine, it ends with Catherine Tate paused mid face pulling, like a frame taken from a Looney Toons classic.

There could have been more of it. Why not make these cartoon moments even more prominent? Have more cartoony set pieces? When the Doctor runs, his legs could rotate like crazed windmills. When knocked unconscious, stars and birds could circle around his head. Sounds too out there? I think as a madcap one off, it could be fun. Planet of the cartoons, Donna might say.

And if there was a ever a Doctor to pull it off, it’s surely Tennant, with his gangly limbs, big eyes and spiky hair, he comes ready to draw. I can already see anvils dropping on his head and pointy lumps growing from his skull. Or him temporarily suspended in mid-air, arms and legs outstretched in moments of surprise or anger. Eyeballs leaping out from his face. What’s up Doc, indeed.

T-t-t-that’s all, folks.

LINK TO The War Games: companions who will eventually have their memories of their time with the Doctor wiped.

NEXT TIME… is there any intelligent life here? We find out on The Mysterious Planet.