Tag Archives: twelfth doctor

Early morning streaming, Whovians (2017) and Knock Knock (2017)

It’s 5:30 on a Sunday morning. I am awake, due to my life long habit of waking naturally by the time I know I have to be up. All is dark and quiet. I sit up in bed, reach for my iPad and headphones. It’s time for a new episode on Doctor Who, delivered fresh and perky from ABC iView.

It’s a ritual made familiar over the last few years, since the ABC has been fast-tracking new episodes of Doctor Who as they’re broadcast on BBC1. It’s the new way of watching Who, having taken over from Sunday night after the news, or if you could navigate through the ocean full of viruses and malware, bit torrenting.

When I was a youth, it used to be Monday to Friday, 6:30pm, which as I’ve mentioned before, is Australia’s version of Saturday teatime. Somehow though, I can’t see Big Finish producing audio promos in years to come harkening back nostalgically to watching the show this way. Can you imagine? It’s pre-dawn 2017 all over again! You’re hiding under the covers, hoping none of your family wake up!

If I’m lucky, I’ll get through the whole episode uninterrupted. If not, Master Spandrell will stumble in and sleepily climb into his parents’ bed and that will be the end of that. If not that, then Little Miss Spandrell might cry out from her bedroom, looking for an early start to the day. So I keep as quiet as I can, keep physical movement to a minimum and hope desperately to remain unnoticed.

This week’s episode is Knock Knock. And it’s been specifically designed to be consumed by nerds on tablets hoping to remain uninterrupted.

*****

Periodically Doctor Who adapts with a change in format. Spearhead from Space may be the first colour story, but it’s not until The Green Death that there’s a story conceived around being seen in colour. Ghost Light might be the first story designed for the VHS generation, a story you have to pause and rewind to understand. And the show’s 2005 series might be as much designed for consumption as a DVD boxset as a broadcast TV show.

In more recent years, we’ve had ancillary Doctor Who content designed to be watched on computer. It’s arguable which was the first such piece of content (as we call it these days) but The Night of the Doctor is definitely designed to be sought out online. Doctor Who you can’t watch on TV.

I watched the special binaural edition of Knock Knock, on my headphones, tucked up in bed, and very nice it was too. One specific knock made me involuntarily turn my head towards the supposed source. It’s an experience you can get on TV, by streaming from your tablet but to get the full effect (apparently) you need headphones. This is Doctor Who designed to be watched on your phone or iPad.

I suggest we get used to this. Doctor Who’s ratings are doomed to fall in future (although our new female Doctor – hooray! – should deliver an initial boost in numbers) and that has nothing to do with the quality of the show. The fact is all broadcast TV is losing viewers, and an increasing amount of people are watching TV shows on tablets and phones. It’s unsurprising there are special editions of Doctor Who for mobile devices; it’s only surprising that there’s not more of it.

How long, I wonder, until we get a spin off series delivered through catch up services like iPlayer and ABC iView only? When you think about how much time, money and effort went into one series of Class (which awkwardly straddled online and broadcast formats) an iPlayer only series may well offer a lower cost, less risky venture. It could lead to some narrative innovation too; freed of the requirement to fit into a 45 minute time slot, stories could be longer or shorter as the story demanded. Doctor Who for the commute home.

Then there’s factual content like Doctor Who Extra and The Doctor Who Fan Show both made for consumption across all devices, but I suspect mostly consumed on mobile. The show is building and nurturing its web-only fans. There must be fans out there now who have never watched an episode of the show on broadcast. Surely it’s only a matter of time before our first catch-up exclusive episode?

There’s a final destination here. We think of Doctor Who as a TV show, which is also available on other devices. Eventually it will stop being a TV show, and simply be a show, with broadcast TV being merely one way to watch it. If at all. It’s not inconceivable of a future where new Doctor Who is an internet only experience, the same as other streaming only shows.

All of which makes Whovians all the more strange.

*****

In Australia, series 10 was accompanied by a 30 minute home made show about watching and loving Doctor Who. It’s hosted by Rove McManus, one of Australia’s biggest TV stars, who had a highly successful evening variety show for years during the noughties, followed by a US chat show for a couple of years. He has always had something of the nerd about him, but he remains an unlikely host, let alone instigator, for a Doctor Who panel show. For one thing, he’s far too cool to display the Ming Mong level of fandom he clearly possesses. And for another, he’s far too expensive for the ABC.

He can only be doing this for the love of it, which is terrific. But Whovians seems to be exactly the sort of after party programming the BBC has been avoiding. Not only is it content they’d be more likely to put online, it’s actually mimicking what happens online after an episode going out live on air; a community of geeks wants to talk about it. It’s fun and its frothy and I love it, but the fact that it’s new broadcast content about Doctor Who seems to be directly the opposite direction that the show itself is heading in.

None of this is bad. It’s just that for a week in 2017 I watched an episode of Doctor Who designed not to be watched on TV, then tuned into a TV program to hear people talk about it. Welcome to the patchwork landscape of 21st century broadcast TV.

QUICK APOLOGETIC ASSESSMENT OF THE STORY WHICH IS THE SUBJECT OF, YET IGNORED BY, THIS POST: Spooky, exciting and a bit gross. But under no circumstances should you examine the plot too closely.

LINK TO The Ice Warriorsspooky mansions.

NEXT TIME: where do you get the milk? I get mine at the Asylum of the Daleks.

 

 

Six, Twelve and Into the Dalek (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

 

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

mummy

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

 *****

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Secrets, separation and The Husbands of River Song (2015)

riversong

There’s a disquieting undertone to this episode, despite it being a big, bold Chrismassy romcom. Yes, it’s the episode that wraps up the relationship between the Doctor (Peter Capaldi, relishing the comic moments) and River Song (Alex Kingston, relishing every bit of it), and it does so in a festive melange of romance and continuity references. Yes, it’s a genuinely funny knockabout caper which celebrates the bond between two fascinating characters. But there’s a nagging concern I’ve been unable to shake. Here it is:

This is the story where River’s true self is revealed to the Doctor. And then he dumps her.

Much was made in this story’s pre-publicity of the comedy value of the Doctor seeing what River does when he’s not around. Due to an unlikely combination of contrivances (River’s convinced the Doctor has a limit of 12 faces, he’s been introduced as ‘the surgeon’), she doesn’t twig who he is, and so she lets the veil drop a little.

We meet a far naughtier character that we’ve seen her be before. We see that she has multiple husbands and multiple wives. That she’s prepare to marry a villain in order to steal from him and kill him. That she borrows the TARDIS when the Doctor’s not looking and stores hooch in a handy roundel. That she’s welcomed onto a spaceship full of mass murderers.

The Doctor looks suitably bemused at all these revelations. But it’s a short exchange with River over dinner that really seems to rock him. She talks about how she got King Hydroflax (Greg Davies) to fall in love with her.

RIVER: It’s the easiest lie you can tell a man. They’ll automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.

And she holds up her TARDIS diary to emphasize the point. Later…

DOCTOR: …you look sad.

RIVER: It’s nearly full.

DOCTOR: So?

RIVER: The man who gave me this was the sort of man who’d know exactly how long a diary you were going to need.

DOCTOR: He sounds awful.

RIVER: I suppose he is. I’ve never really thought about it.

DOCTOR: Not somebody special then?

RIVER: No. But terribly useful every now and then.

Of course, she’s shielding her true feelings, but still, it’s clear that these words sting the Doctor. Later on, in a more honest and revealing moment, River explains that while she loves the Doctor, he doesn’t love her in return.

RIVER: When you love the Doctor, it’s like loving the stars themselves. You don’t expect a sunset to admire you back. And if I happen to find myself in danger, let me tell you, the Doctor is not stupid enough, or sentimental enough, and he is certainly not in love enough to find himself standing in it with me!

Penny in the air. She turns to look at the Doctor. Penny drops.

DOCTOR: Hello, sweetie.

It’s a moment of reaffirmation. But the damage appears to be done. This relationship is toast. And River won’t get a say in how it ends.

Consider what happens next. The spaceship, under assault from a meteor storm, dive bombs into a planet. River recognizes the planet immediately as Darillium. We fans know what happens on Darillium. It’s the site of her final meeting with the Doctor before she dies. To escape the crash, the Doctor and River take shelter in the TARDIS. It survives the crash and is planted on Darillium. River is unconscious. The Doctor is awake. And now he has choices.

He could take off again. He and River could go off adventuring anew. No need to stop the fun. Another great escape.

But he doesn’t do that. He makes a conscious decision to engineer the building of a restaurant of Darillium so that he can take River for dinner there, and spend their last night together. He knows this will precipitate the end of their relationship. He does it anyway. It his opinion, it’s time.

Two things bug me about this:

He does it without consulting River. There are two people in this relationship but the Doctor is the one who decides to end it. Why doesn’t he discuss it with her? Presumably because he knows she won’t want to go, but everything has its time and every Christmas is last Christmas or something. Imagine if your partner took an action he/she knew was going to end your relationship, but didn’t discuss it with you. Or did it while you were unconscious! It’s pretty appalling.

He does this after she revealed her true self to him. There have been no end of opportunities for the Doctor to take River to Darillium. He chose this time. What’s different about this time? It’s all as exciting and wisecracking as usual, except this time, River has displayed some habits he doesn’t like. There is air of punishment about this, which is, well, icky. If you don’t like her stealing your TARDIS and murdering despots for jewels, then say something. Don’t just unilaterally decide to end the relationship.

When River works out what’s going on, she naturally protests. She begs for a loophole, for another chance. But the Doctor’s mind is made up. The silver lining? One night on Darillium lasts twenty-four years.

Well that sounds alright in theory, but have these two met each other? Neither of them can stand still for a minute and they’re proposing to spend nearly a quarter of a century in a restaurant? Personally I don’t think it will last twenty-four hours, let alone years.

Perhaps that’s River’s revenge. Perhaps while he’s off to the loo, she steals his TARDIS and pilots it twenty-three-and-three-quarters years into the future. That’ll serve the manipulative old git right!

LINK TO The Three Doctors: “remember that time when there was two of you?” says River. She wasn’t talking about The Three Doctors, but still.

NEXT TIME… As my random who generator’s will, so mote it be! It’s time to summon up The Dæmons.

 

The Doctor, a douchebag and Deep Breath (2014)

deepbreath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

Capaldi, Moffat and Heaven Sent (2015)

heavensent

Tom Baker, at the height of his Doctordom, used to advocate for a Doctor Who which he starred in solo, with no need for a companion. He saw, I think it’s fair to say, the potential for him to hold an audience’s attention solo. Probably through the force of his own personality, but it’s not an unreasonable proposition – as The Deadly Assassin proved – that the Doctor as a dominant central character can hold a story’s narrative together on his own.

And since then, we’ve seen Doctors Tennant and Smith in companion-lite stories, and the model has worked just fine. But always these have remained ensemble pieces, with our solitary Doctor interacting with a guest cast . It’s not until Heaven Sent we get a story which is not just companion-lite, but everything-but-the-Doctor-lite. It’s the sort of episode Tom Baker must have dreamt of, back in day.

Heaven Sent is many things, not least of which an extraordinary vote of confidence in Peter Capaldi. Never before has one actor been entrusted with keeping a Doctor Who audience captivated all by himself. But it’s also a case of showrunner Steven Moffat continuing to experiment with the show’s form. He’s also, I suspect, keeping himself interested, even challenging himself with episodes like this one and Listen which in essence ask the same question that The Deadly Assassin did… Which is, can we pull this radical idea off?

So Heaven Sent is about those two men, as much as it’s about the Doctor deducing his way out of his own bespoke torture chamber. Let’s start with…

Capaldi

Of all the actors to play the Doctor, Capaldi comes to it with the most distinguished resume. Only Eccleston I think could challenge him for pre-Who actorly kudos. Capaldi’s experience is written all over that well lined face of his and he brings all of that to bear on his performance of the Doctor.

He can be the subtlest of Doctors; I remember watching Deep Breath  for the first time and being impressed with what he could do with the slightest gesture or the smallest flick of an eye. If his performance has been painted with ever broader brushstrokes since then, we might put this down to the need to develop a bigger performance to match Doctor Who’s pace; eyes become wider, laughs more extravagant, snarls more ferocious.

Capaldi is also an actor who moves with precision. In Heaven Sent, look at the considered way he picks up a spade or lets sand run though his fingers. Compare this to the brio of David Tennant, sailing into a scene, coat billowing. Or the teeter totter movement Matt Smith made his signature move. Capaldi’s careful choice of gesture and gait is an important character note; his is a Doctor who considers, who internalises and who wastes no energy on wild flailing about.

His voice is also distinctive, and crucial to the foreboding atmosphere of Heaven Sent, much of which is told in voice over. The decision to keep his Scots accent (don’t send him to that Chameleon spaceship!) is an interesting one, and one which, along with his initially close cropped hair, tied him closely to his other famous TV role, Malcolm Tucker. Luckily though, it’s a terrific voice, loaded with gravitas and it adds to the doom laden feeling of this episode.

These days, the ghost of Malcolm Tucker has faded almost entirely. Capaldi’s new, more Doctorly, costume has helped that. At the beginning of his second season, he was wearing check trousers like Troughton, and how he has a burgundy frock coat ala Tom Baker. All this, plus his hair has now grown into a Pertwee-esque bouffant. He now not only looks like a classic Doctor, he’s deliberately imitating them, right down to his (thankfully unseen) question mark underwear.

All this gushing is just to point out that Capaldi’s Doctor has developed into someone really interesting. Still spikily bad tempered, but with a growing sense of wry humour. A Doctor who looks and sounds the part. Played by an actor with care and precision. It’s why there was no doubt he could hold our attention solo for 45 minutes, because he’s utterly compelling.

Moffat

To make a Doctor solo episode work, Moffat pulls a range of narrative tricks. The problem he faces is that the Doctor has to have some dialogue to explain what’s going on, but he has no one to speak to. As noted, there’s the voice over, turning the Doctor into a commentator on his own story and giving the impression that the viewer’s allowed access to his innermost thoughts.

Moffat also gives the Doctor two people to talk to while he’s alone. The first is his unseen imprisoner, at whom he rails and shouts threats. But soon his attention switches to the monstrous Veil (Jamie Reid Quarrel), a creature plucked from his own childhood fears. Either way, the Doctor now has someone to speculate about the plot in front of. This exposition doesn’t lack an audience; in effect the viewer takes the place of the absent companion.

Then there’s the ‘storm room’, a mental stronghold which sounds suspiciously like Sherlock’s mind palace, and which enables the Doctor to talk to an hallucination of Clara. The storm room is where he retreats to at moments of mortal peril, which is very handy. It gets Moffat out of the need for a companion to ask, ‘how did you get out of that one?’ So between these three tricks – talking to himself (through voiceover), talking to the monster and talking in a dream sequence, Moffat deftly manouevers around the lack of supporting characters.

Heaven Sent is more than just Moffat pulling off some impressive narrative tricks, though. It’s also about finding new things to do with this show, in his sixth year of running it. He wants to keep the show fresh, of course, but I think it’s also about his own need to remain challenged and engaged by the show. There’s a sense, in the later years of his reign, of Moffat needing to stretch the show’s format further and further in order to keep himself amused. Luckily, I think the show’s the stronger for it.

There’s still some familiar Moffat tropes: hard drives that save people, an entire ‘bespoke’ situation designed around the Doctor, a twist in the final reel (and what a twist. When that remarkable closing sequence showing multiple subsequent repetitions of the Doctor’s quest from beginning to end, and the penny dropped as to what the long term effect was, I must confess to giving the Moff a quiet round of applause for the sheer cleverness of it).

Still, this feels startlingly new, while still managing to recall that Deadly Assassin by placing a solo Doctor in a trippy, dream world trap of Time Lord making. Plus there’s the added layer of meaning now that we know that Moffat was attempting to leave Doctor Who at the end of this season, that the Doctor himself stands as an avatar for the writer, trapped in a puzzle box of a TV series desperately trying to escape.

That’s what Heaven Sent says to me. One man liberated from the series’ standard format, seizing the opportunity to show how extraordinary he and his Doctor can be. And another man fighting against that format, to keep himself motivated and his writing vital, all the time with one eye on the exit, even if he has to bash his way through a wall of stone to get to it, one punch at a time.

LINK TO The Faceless Ones: duplication processes.

NEXT TIME: Which one was your favourite? The Giant Robot? Or was it Planet of the Dead?

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

Forest

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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