Tag Archives: tenth doctor

Rules (fictional), rules (personal) and The Waters of Mars (2009)

watersmars

If action packed, edge-of-your-seat thrills is what you want from Doctor Who, then The Waters of Mars is satisfying stuff. It tells the story of Earth’s first colonists on Mars, systematically picked off by a sentient micro-organism which transforms its victims into water exuding monsters. History says that the colonists are doomed and the Doctor (David Tennant, nearing the end of his Doctordom) is torn between saving these legendary astronauts and allowing established events to play out as recorded. Directed by the show’s great galvaniser Graeme Harper, it’s fast, frightening and foreboding. It’s as good an example of that particular genre of Doctor Who as we’ve ever got and given that particular strain gives us The Seeds of Doom, Earthshock and The Caves of Androzani, that’s impressive.

So, as I’ve mulled over this one, I’ve been surprised to find myself returning to something much more contemplative about this noisy, nervy tale: about what it says about the Doctor and his inherent contradictions.

Let me take a step back: I’ve been debating the merits of The Waters of Mars with Nathan Bottomley of the Flight Through Entirety podcast. He’s got a problem with its central premise, which hangs on one of Doctor Who’s long established rules: that you can’t rewrite history, not one line. But that rule has no basis in the real world; it’s just a made-up piece of sci-fi flim flam. So we have a Doctor Who story seeking to create drama out of a fictional conceit and that weakens the whole story, making it less compelling for the audience.

He has a point, I think. Who can blame an audience for not caring about the transgression of some obscure Whovian law. But for me, the drama of The Waters of Mars feels more important than that. As the Doctor’s curiosity about solving the mystery of what happened on Bowie Base One gives way to anguish about whether or not he should save these brave, compassionate humans, this becomes more than an argument about the console room’s state of temporal grace or the favourite colours of the Prydonian chapter. It feels like there’s more at stake than that. I think the reason why, is that the made up sci-fi laws are not as insubstantial as all that: they’re a stand in for the Doctor’s moral code.

Which brings us around to asking, “what exactly is the Doctor’s moral code?” And to answer that, we need to know who he is. And that’s difficult to answer because who he is changes. Initially, he was a scientist, an engineer and a researcher, as well as a fugitive from his people. Later, he becomes a hero and a renegade. Sometimes it’s more straightforward than that, when he’s positioned as “simply a traveller.” None of these suggest someone who sticks to too many rules. But he definitely has an authoritarian streak: he can’t abide people mucking about with time.

It’s a contradiction which has grown to mythic status; in the New Adventures range, he was called “time’s champion” but it’s more accurate, at least in the classic series view, to call him “time’s policeman”. He’s not a defender, but an enforcer. In The Time Warrior, he characterises his own people as “galactic ticket inspectors” and that’s basically the role he takes.  One of his earliest recurring enemies was specifically a time meddler, whose meddling the Doctor was intent on stamping out.

Of course, his stance on the sanctity of history is not without its own contradictions. He meddles in future history and the history of other planets all the time. The basic rule is if it was taught on the history syllabus of one the show’s writers, it was inviolable. And he himself frequently brags about his influence on history – dropping apples on Isaac Newton’s head, for instance – and he loves starting famous historical fires, be they in Rome or London.

These hypocrisies aside, I think the weight of evidence tells us that the sanctity of history is part of the Doctor’s moral code. From The Aztecs all the way through to The Fires of Pompeii, the Doctor hangs on to his lost civilisation’s rule about history, as if it were a lifeline to his own. For a universally famous rule breaker, this is the one rule clings to. It’s as important to him as treating all life with respect or that blue people have the same rights as purple people.

And he believes it like a dogma, something so ingrained into him that he struggles to explain it. Like when he says to Adelaide Brook (Lindsay Duncan), this mission’s steely commander, “Your death is fixed in time forever. And that’s right.” It’s the sort of thing you say when you can’t quite describe a complex operating principle, but you know that it’s true. It’s the sort of thing a religion might preach. Don’t question it, because I fundamentally believe it to be true, the Doctor is saying.

So that’s why it’s such a lurch when he then rejects his own rule and turns around to rescue what’s left of the crew. It’s not dramatic because he’s breaking the fictional laws of time, it’s dramatic because our hero is breaking his own moral code. That’s a conflict as old as the hills, and it’s a good one. Because it signals two things: 1. That the Doctor’s in conflict with himself and you can tell that in Tennant’s hair quivering performance. He’s forcing himself to do things which he knows are against his own personal beliefs. 2. That if the Doctor’s prepared to throw this part of this moral compass aside, then – blimey (as he himself might say) – what’s next? The sanctity of life? The commitment to peaceful co-existence?.

When the Doctor abandons his moral code, bad things happen. When ground down by acts of violence and injustice all around him, or when isolated from his human companions, he’s prone to going too far. It happens here but also in The Girl Who Died, where he makes a rash decision to create an immortal teenager and in Hell Bent, where he steals, shoots and bullies his way into rescuing his friend who should be dead. And of course, the foundation of the new series was that he destroyed his own people in a moment of war-inflicted desperation, an act so incompatible with his morals that it caused him untold anguish.

The Waters of Mars asks the question, how can these various aspects of the Doctor’s personality be squared away? In the choice between being a hero and being a rule enforcer, the Doctor has chosen enforcer time and time again, from the streets of Paris to the streets of Pompeii. Here for the first time, he chooses to be a hero, but in doing so he unleashes his inner monster. It’s that internal conflict which provides the real drama here, and we care about it because we care about the Doctor. What he stands for matters to us.

(At least until The Day of the Doctor when he decides to change history, rescue everyone and everything stays fine. And in the next story, there’s a whole plot based on Whovian lore on the regeneration limit of 12. But hey – Vive la contradiction.)

SACRIFICIAL BLAM: Poor hapless Ed, played by Australia’s own Peter O’Brien.

LINK TO Kerblam!: written by Australia’s own Pete McTighe.

NEXT TIME: So this is the great journey of life! We’re stuck on The Horns of Nimon, you meddlesome hussy!

Retconning, retreading and Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel (2006)

risecyb

In new Who’s opening year, Russell T Davies brought back the Daleks and in doing so, set the format for reintroducing an old monster from the classic series. He brought them back by giving new viewers just enough back story, but without wildly contradicting their history from the classic days. And that’s the way most old monsters have been brought back into the show: Sontarans, Zygons, Ice Warriors and so on.

The exception is the Cybermen. In their return appearance, Series 2’s Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, Davies and writer Tom MacRae retcon the big silver fellas, creating them a whole new backstory, in the continuity safe space of an alternative universe. In the classic series, Cybermen were our alien cousins, who had turned themselves into synthetic horrors and were intent on making us like them. Here, they are not just related to us, they are us. Borne of our own obsession with technology, these homegrown version Cybermen position themselves as just the latest in a long line of habitual upgrades.

Truth be told, it’s a better origin story than the one originally presented back in 1966. The Cyber threat is much closer to home in the version presented here; the society of Pete’s World doesn’t feel that different to our own, so it’s not that hard to imagine our own wearable technology turning against us. And if we’re worried about dissing the show’s heritage, it’s not like classic era Doctor Who ever shied away from rewriting established history. The Daleks have two origin stories. Time Lord history got rewritten.

But the Rise of the Cybermen etc doesn’t just want to rewrite continuity (and it doesn’t stick anyway. We eventually meet different Cybermen from our universe and no-one can be bothered explaining their backstory). It also wants to recreate the show’s own history. And in doing so, it gives us a peek into a very different approach to new Who which was never taken.

***

One of Doctor Who’s ancient, mysterious artifacts is the Leekley Bible. It was a guiding document for a potential new series of Doctor Who, which was being planned by Amblin Universal in the 1990s. Written by John Leekley, it detailed a backstory for the series which, depending on your point of view, was either a mangled misremembering of key moments from the classic series, or an innovative new take established Who lore. This summary from Tardis Wikia is indicative: A ruggedly handsome young Time Lord named the Doctor discovers that he is the long-lost son of the great explorer Ulysses, but not before the Master becomes the Lord President of Gallifrey. The Doctor must travel with the spirit of Borusa (who can only exist inside the “Time-crystals” that power the Tardis) and find his long lost father to restore the balance of peace across the universe. Yup, it’s unique.

Anyway, the Leekley bible goes on to suggest the type of stories which a new series of Doctor Who could include and rather than invent brand new ones, it suggests recycling plot lines from years past. It proposes remaking classic stories like The Ark in Space, The Tomb of the Cybermen and The Gunfighters among many others. All of them have gone through the Leekley reassembling machine, so have similarly tampered emphases as the series premise noted above: think The Daemons but during the Salem witch trials, The Talons of Weng-Chiang but in NYC. Who knows whether a full Amblin series would have taken up these suggestions, or created new storylines or mixed them together. But the point is that a valid approach to new Who could have been to simply remake old Who. After all, there are 26 years of it to mine.

All this is relevant because Rise of the Cybermen is basically The Invasion. It’s the story of a power mad tech millionaire, who embarks on a plan to take over the world, using his company’s ubiquitous consumer technology and turn everyone into Cybermen. It even reuses the name International Electromatics from the earlier story. The Cybermen are eventually defeated by being flooded with emotions. Sure there are differences, but I suspect about the same level as we might find in a Leekley version of The Sea Devils set on a Louisiana oil rig. Looked at through this lens, Rise of the Cybermen is, appropriately enough, a view into an alternative universe, where all new Doctor Who was made from reappropriating old Doctor Who.*

In one sense, constructing a series out of cover versions of previous stories would have been a difficult approach for the show to take, playing havoc with the show’s long term continuity (not that that has ever been sacrosanct). And probably in the long run, it would have only demonstrated a lack of originality which wouldn’t have served the series well. But it might have been a way of breathing life into stories which otherwise would only be watched by tragics like you and me. If not a full series, perhaps it could have led to a mini-series of specials based on the old series’ greatest hits. (Though perhaps, with animated adaptations of missing stories like The Macra Terror making increasingly bold editorial choices, it’s already happening in its own way.)

But you know what? I don’t really need to hear the greatest hits again. It’s like all those Hollywood remakes of films which were perfectly fine the first time around. Why don’t they remake bad films and make them good? Because I don’t want talented writers like Davies or Moffat rewriting Pyramids of Mars. But I would absolutely watch them make classics of Arc of Infinity or The Time Monster. Those would be challenges worthy of their skills.

***

I’ve managed to avoid talking about the actual story again. Long term readers will not be surprised; I do this sometimes. It’s not that I don’t like Rise of the Cybermen etc. I like it quite a lot. Just as I like The Invasion. And Inferno. And Genesis of the Daleks. And The Dalek Invasion of Earth. And Father’s Day. It’s well performed and well directed and as familiar as a comfortable pair of slippers and…

Oh yeah. Maybe that’s why we don’t just recycle old stories all the time. Don’t call us, Leekley.

LINK TO Resolution: Difficult companion/Dad relationships in both.

NEXT TIME: What the hell? Let’s Kill Hitler.

*(And yes, another piece of early source material for this story was the Big Finish drama Spare Parts but in its final form, there’s not much similarity between the two.)

Rose, Reinette and The Girl in the Fireplace (2006)

girlfire

You can tell a Steven Moffat script. The writing is full of clever ripostes and zingy one-liners, delivered at just the right moment, with just the right amount of sardonic wit. But my favourite line of dialogue from (the thankfully less grisly than it sounds) The Girl in the Fireplace is much simpler and more functional. It’s this:

ROSE: Why her?

That line comes in the middle of a standard mid-episode exposition scene, albeit in an episode with a more complex premise than most. The Doctor (David Tennant), Rose (Billie Piper) and Mickey (Noel Clarke) have discovered a spaceship in the far future, linked to a number of times and places in 18th century France. Present in each of these locations is Reinette, AKA Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles), at different stages in her life, and a cohort of clockwork androids are crossing from future to past to monitor her.

In this scene, our TARDIS crew and Reinette have cornered one of the robots and are interrogating it on what’s going on. They’ve found out that the robots have cannibalised the ship’s crew for parts (still 21st century Who’s most gruesome plot development) to repair the immobilised spaceship, and they want Reinette for a mysterious, but crucial, final component.

The pivotal question is why, out of all the people in history, do the robots want Reinette? The question must be asked, but think about Moffat’s choices about which character should give voice to it. He could give it to the Doctor, but he’s already carrying the bulk of this scene. He could choose Reinette and change the question to “why me?” It would be a perfectly understandable question for her character to ask.

Instead, he gives it to Rose. And in a moment which shows what a smart and subtle actor she is, Billie Piper manages to drench those two words with subtext. Yes, she wants to know what the robots find so fascinating about Reinette, but she’s really asking why this fascination has spread to the Doctor, whose romantic interest the girl in the fireplace has piqued. Why her, she’s asking, and not me?

*****

Moffat has said that this episode is “the one where Doctor Who gets a girlfriend”. Which cheerfully ignores the fact that he already has a girlfriend in Rose. But then the Doctor and Rose have never been what we might call “official”.

Truth is, Rose never knows where she stands with the Doctor. Yes, she’s snogged him but both times were under extraordinary sci-fi infused circumstances: once he drew a bundle of time energy out of her to save her life (via her lips) and the other time she was possessed by a notorious vamp (and not responsible for the actions of her lips). No commitment has been made by either party. Which is where the romantic insecurity sets in. Mickey teases her about it this episode when listing possible suitors for the Doctor in Sarah Jane Smith, Cleopatra and now, Madame De Pompadour.

None of which would matter if Rose felt secure in her relationship with the Doctor, but she’s always played it pretty casually too. She’s kept Mickey on the hook for long enough, keeping her options open. So she doesn’t really have cause to complain when the Doctor takes up with Reinette in record speed. But it obviously bugs her. It’s pretty clear throughout this episode that Rose is thinking, “what if he invites her to come with us? Or what if he decides to stay with her?”

Why the Doctor is suddenly so taken with Reinette is more difficult to work out. Sure, she’s a beautiful woman (probably) but the Doctor’s hung out with plenty of them before and never hooked up so quickly (that wild New Year’s Eve back in 1996 excepted). It’s tempting to think that he’s just so unused to romantic relationships that he’ll latch on to any girl who’s deigned to kiss him.

To be fair, Reinette is remarkably smart, capable and unafraid to take what she wants. He’s not just fascinated by her, but by the mystery of why this troop of ticking androids wants to plug her into their spaceship. (Here we see one of Moffat’s favourite plot lines beginning; a woman as an intriguing puzzle for the Doctor to solve.) Sure, Rose is the girl next door, but Reinette’s an enigma wrapped in a ball gown.

If the Doctor’s aware that he’s causing Rose consternation, he certainly doesn’t show it. Can he really be so blind to her feelings? Doesn’t he know that they’re quasi boyfriend and girlfriend? He’s clearly no stranger to romantic jealousy. Look at how snarkily he tells Louis (Ben Turner) that a lord of time trumps a king of France.

I think it’s more likely that with Rose’s determination to keep her options open with Mickey, the Doctor’s assumed that this whatever-it-is with her is not necessarily going to be monogamous. Sadly, we never got a serious suitor for Rose to find out whether he’d react in the same way (Captain Jack kinda made him jealous for a bit but I’m not really sure that counts. Given that he turns out to be turned on by just about everyone he meets).

It’s sometimes pointed out that the Tennant Doctor and Rose don’t treat other people very well, so ensconced are they in their bubble of love. But The Girl in the Fireplace shows that occasionally, they also don’t treat each other very well. It’s pretty hard to ignore the fact that the Doctor heads off to “dance” with Reinette mid-episode, with no thought as to how this might make Rose feel. Cheating on his girlfriend with his new girlfriend. The Doctor as a cad – that’s something genuinely new.

Rose and Reinette end up representing the two types of woman our 21st century Doctor, with his new interest in romance, will end up flirting with over the next few years. On one hand, you have the sassy girl next door types: Rose, Amy, Clara and Martha. On the other, you have mythic, powerful, uber women: Reinette, River Song, Tasha Lem, Queens Elizabeth and Nefertiti. Both are idealised feminine archetypes, though at opposite ends of a spectrum of hetero male fantasies. It would be interesting to see the Doctor fall for someone who sits more realistically between these two ideals.

*****

I have a favourite shot in The Girl in the Fireplace, to go along with my favourite line. It’s the final one where we at last find out why the clockwork robots are as fascinated in Reinette as the Doctor is. As it turns out, the answer to Rose’s question was there all the time, obscured by a particularly unfortunate piece of TARDIS parking.

Why her? Well, the ship is named after Madame De Pompadour. In using the very last moments of his story to put the last of its jigsaw puzzle pieces in place, Moffat underlines that the big events of our lives – who you fall in love with, who falls in love with you – depend to a large extent on coincidence and will always remain, at least in part, a mystery.

LINK TO The Woman Who Lived: Both titles refer to mysterious female guest stars.

NEXT TIME: Family history and time travel? Very tricky. Break out the shop bought cake for Demons of the Punjab.

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.

 

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)

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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)

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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 revelled 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.