Wednesday, 21 February 2018

An Unearthly Child

Chapter The 78th, which - seriously - is still compelling, even today.

Plot: 
Two comprehensive school teachers in 1960s London become curious about a pupil based on odd comments she makes in class, and recent bad homework, so they stalk her mercilessly. They find out her address, stake it out, waiting for her to come back one afternoon, then follow her into her home which turns out to be a pan-dimensional craft for traversing the space-time continuum. Disguised as a Police Box. In a junkyard. The schoolkid's Grandad turns out to be a space-wizard and grumpy to boot. Threatened by the possibility of intrusion on his privacy if the teachers tell anyone about him, he starts up the ship, and whisks all four of them off to Earth circa 100,000 BC where they get involved with a tribe of cavemen trying to rediscover the secret of fire. Narrowly avoiding getting their skulls smashed in, they escape again in the ship (named the TARDIS). But it's knackered and the space-wizard (called the Doctor) doesn't know how to steer it properly, so he can't take the teachers home and they all have to go off and have adventures together. The End. The Beginning...

Context:
Some targets are so vast that the problem isn't hitting them, it's whether one's arrows are going to make any impression greater than a pinprick. The blog's random travels have landed it upon the very first story of Doctor Who, a phenomenally successful creation which has continued on from this beginning for more than 50 years giving enjoyment to millions of people across the globe: what is there that I can say about it? "There were leaders before there was fire" and "Fear makes companions of us all" are the Who equivalents of "To be or not to be" or "Is this a dagger I see before me?" - dialogue that's become a quote with its own life, and therefore that takes you out of the surrounding action just a bit. I've watched these four episodes so many times over the years that it's impossible to come to them fresh any longer. For this reason, I wanted to watch alongside at least some of the family, but throughout the half term holiday, no one was particularly interested.

I started watching an episode each evening late, and got halfway before having to start again when suddenly they changed their minds and were interested after all. In the end, we all (me, the Better Half, and the three kids, boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) watched together; the eldest child wandered off here and there for the middle episodes, but everyone else watched silent and rapt for the duration - the more quiet it is in our house, the better something's going down, so this was a good sign. Another good sign was that everyone wanted to watch the next story the second that episode 4's cliffhanger ending faded from view. Not many comments from the assembled, but the Better Half ventured the opinion that the background hum of the TARDIS would drive her mad in a couple of hours if she had to live there.

The only annoyance with watching on DVD is that the Play All option includes the 'pilot' episode first before the four episodes of the story proper; this was a version of the episode An Unearthly Child recorded earlier, with certain differing script details and production elements, which were then tweaked for the rerecorded version that was eventually broadcast. If one were to actually sit down, hit that button and not touch the remote again, the experience would essentially be to see the same introductory episode run through twice, putting off the caveman episodes by 25 minutes - and who would want that? 

First-time round:
Beyond the odd clip I caught here and there on Swap Shop or before turning over to something else, my first sustained viewing of Doctor Who was when I tuned in partway through The Forest of Fear, episode three of An Unearthly Child. More details of the circumstances of my stumbling across the programme can be read here; it was the 4th November 1981 and this story was the first of a season of archive Doctor Who repeats stripped across weekly evenings on BBC2. Watching this time, I tried to pinpoint the moment I joined the episode; it's been a long time, but my best guess is that it was only a few minutes in, when our heroes are escaping into the eponymous forest, pursued by cave-people. I was intrigued enough to keep watching, and to tune in the following day for The Firemaker, and the following week for a Patrick Troughton story, The Krotons, and then another story, and then another two more. And then I tuned in a few weeks later when the next proper series started broadcast. The rest is history (and science): I was hooked.

I finally got to see the first two and a half episodes in early 1990, when the VHS release of the story was released. That previously un-broadcast 'pilot' version of episode 1 was released on The William Hartnell Years VHS compilation the following year, and a few months after that an alternative edit of it was shown on BBC2 as part of a day of programming dedicated to Lime Grove, the historic but rubbish studios where the story was made. 

Reaction:
For some obvious structural reasons, the first four episodes of Doctor Who are often treated as two separate entities - one part intriguing set up in a school and a junkyard, three parts caveman adventure. Years ago, fan journalism invented a separate overarching title for parts 2-4, "The Tribe of Gum", though that seems to have fallen out of fashion lately. As I'll discuss in more detail later, this is to a certain extent dictated by prejudices of taste. A lot of people don't like the caveman nonsense, and think it detracts from the justly esteemed opener - the caveman idea was done even at the time only because the production team had no other options, and with reservations. But it's not true: although a lot of series bible set-up elements, and ideas from previous drafts by other writers, are incorporated into writer Anthony Coburn's episode 1, all four episodes were commissioned and written by him, and directed by a single person, Waris Hussein. It's intended as one four episode piece. There is a through-flow both in the narrative details - An Unearthly Child subtly establishes that Ian carries no matches, which will be crucial later on - and wider themes.

The tribe is struggling to find the right leader, confused about what the right values are that would dictate the decision. They have previously assumed that it was all to do with the special Orb-given skill, making fire. When it looks like nobody possesses this skill, how and who will they choose? The familiar Za, even though he seems more prone to inaction, or the newcomer, Kal, who's bringing in more food but may also be a liar and an egotist. Mirroring this, the newly formed TARDIS tribe is struggling to find a leader, and a shared set of values. Characters have agency, including all the females (this story has four great roles for women, two regular, two guest cast, and Doctor Who and The Doctor treats them all as reasonably or unreasonably as the males - whenever, if ever, the sexism set in, it wasn't there from the beginning).

What's great is that there's no villains here, everyone is empathetic, but complex. Though efforts are made to display their primitive thinking, the two lead cavemen are still shown to be canny political operators, making the most of the twists and turns to improve their standing. Kal is not necessarily the wrong person to lead, until he murders Old Mother, stepping beyond the moral boundaries (of the audience and the tribe). This is mirrored in the Doctor's musing on similarly killing a defenceless man; Ian stops him before it can be much more than an idea, and thereby saves the Doctor who then steps up and gets to be properly Doctorish for the first time, when he tricks the murderer into revealing the murder weapon and implicating himself. Hartnell is magnetic to watch in that scene, and everywhere else. Watch his very first scene - he walks in midway, and with a few deft gestures, pulls focus and thereafter dominates. The direction is uniformly excellent: only in these early stories does the staging and performance reach this level of reality, the regulars grimy, sweaty, and in genuine panic for their lives and liberty.

I haven't even talked about the first episode's brilliance. It has its flaws (they become obvious after watching it so many times) but they're superficial, and it still is the benchmark of how to do a series opener in 25 minutes. I can't add much more to what's been said and re-said over the years. Even within the space of these few scenes, the characters are shown to have depth: Barbara and Ian both admit to themselves that their motives in checking up on Susan are not 100% pure, and so - like in the best horror stories - the trials that await them are not wholly undeserved, having been brought on by their curiosity. The moment of precognitive doubt as Barbara steps out of the car, wondering what they're getting into, is wonderfully in keeping with this. If you've never watched the pilot version, though, it's worth a go to see how much it was improved in the broadcast version. Every decision made was the right one, creating more mystery about the Doctor and Susan. One thing that rightly remained unchanged between the two versions, though, is the marvellous cliffhanger: the shadow of a caveman falls over the scene of a Police Box standing incongruously in a primitive landscape.

Connectivity: 
An Unearthly Child and Battlefield are both season opening four-part stories (the very first and very last seasons of the original run, as it happens); both contain references to school, history and science (if one counts Ace's bomb-making in Battlefield).

Deeper Thoughts:
It wos not just the Daleks wot wun it. I've read that some foreign countries picking up Doctor Who episodes for broadcast in the 1960s may have skipped the three cavemen episodes altogether. You just about could go from the cliffhanger ending of An Unearthly Child to The Dead Planet, first episode of the following Dalek story, without too much audience head-scratching: our heroes have arrived in another desolate landscape with another someone watching the TARDIS. And, nobody at the time could check the previous episode or pause the current episode to wonder too long why the regulars' clothes were suddenly in need of changing: blink and you'd miss it. For the reasons I set out above and more, though, such a decision would horrify me - whatever one thinks of the caveman story, it's a bit much to go from separating it out to excising it. It doesn't surprise me however. It was after all how the original tie-in novelisation was rewritten. Narratives are powerful things, and a narrative that's popular can be more powerful than one that's true. The overriding creation myth of Doctor Who is that it had an intriguing intro episode that was unfortunately overshadowed by a huge contemporary news item in JFK's assassination aftermath; luckily, along came the Daleks, which turned the show into a hit, and it never looked back... unlike JFK who looked back, and to the left... [sorry, Good Taste Ed.].

There's a lot of truth in this narrative, but it's not the whole story. Doctor Who was performing well for its early episodes, but the Daleks did turn it into a ratings sensation. Arguably, this was even more impressive than it seemed, as that first Dalek story was a rush commission rather than something that had months of thought and planning like the first story. And the Daleks are a great concept, visually and conceptually, for which everyone involved should be justly proud. But the best bad guys are only as good as the heroes who come up against them, and they are defined by those heroes' reactions. This is why the Daleks have never found much of a life without the Doctor. This is the disappointment of reading a comic strip in a Doctorless Dalek annual, and why Dalek author Terry Nation's Dalek-only TV show never found sufficient backing - the heroes were too clean-cut and dull; the Daleks on their own weren't enough, they're only one side of the coin. It was like Moriarty was deprived of Sherlock Holmes and was up against Dan Dare instead (in fact, scratch that - that sounds like it would be awesome!).

The three cavemen episodes set up the regulars, and flesh out their characters. The team then start the Dalek story ready to meet the big bad nemesis and take things up a level. It wasn't planned that way, it was just luck, but it worked. To recap: our heroes are an old man so desperate not to lose his granddaughter he kidnaps two teachers rather than risk her running off if he let's the two of them go, who's willing to kill a defenceless man just so he can escape quicker. Ian isn't a saint either, he's stubborn and aggressive as well as stoic and brave, and needs Barbara to remind him of basic compassion. He likens the cavemen to animals, and has just as many issues projecting his superiority as the Doctor. Barbara can't help but follow her curiosity even when she can feel its going to lead to something terrible. Susan is hyper-intelligent but young and naive. The conflict between the regulars is also very carefully calibrated - not enough to be off-putting, but enough to develop the characters and propel the action.

Step back a moment, forget about the caveman's outfits and speech patterns being a bit risible, and see the quality and depth that's been put into the script. Imagine what the first story of a teatime kids' show could have been like, if they'd underestimated the audience: a bunch of bland people, including one unreliable oldster, adrift in time and space trying to find their way home. It could have ended up like a British Lost in Space. And Lost in Space was shit.

In Summary:
The origin, you might say. And one of the best, all four parts of it. So there.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Battlefield

Chapter The 77th, an Arthurian adventure; well, isn't that wizard?!

Plot: 
A future version of the Doctor finds himself in another dimension and becomes Merlin to a King Arthur who is much closer to the legends written in our reality, but with added zap guns and grenades. The King and his sword Excalibur are sent by that Doctor to our universe in the 8th century in a spacecraft, which is hidden under a lake in England, with a secret concrete tunnel to allow his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy) to enter 12 centuries later, plus booby traps to make it more challenging for his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy) to enter 12 centuries later. He was clearly in two minds about his past self (as played by Sylvester McCoy), this once and future Doctor.

Anyway, the sword gives off a signal, which is picked up by the TARDIS, and the 7th Doctor and Ace arrive nearby in the Home Counties of the near-future (relative to Ace's timeline). The signal may also cause a UNIT nuclear missile convoy to break down nearby, or it may just be a coincidence. When the Doctor investigates, a new Brigadier, Winifred Bambera, radios in about this mysterious stranger, and the old Brigadier, Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, is called to the area to help out. So, two Doctors, two Brigadiers, and (probably) two King Arthurs - are we keeping up so far?

Somehow, wicked witch Morgaine travels through a gateway into our dimension; some of her knights (and one of Arthur's knights) also arrive, but they don't come through a gateway, they fly through space and land like rockets crashing into the Earth (possibly because they think it looks cool). Whether they have time travelled as well as crossed dimensions or whether they've just been waiting a long time is not clear (in fact, there's indications in dialogue and staging to point to both, so take your pick). Everyone has a big fight, Morgaine nearly sets off the nuke, but the Doctor talks her out of it, and everyone lives happily ever after. Ish. And I haven't even mentioned The Destroyer, or Doris, or Shou Yuing. It's got a lot of plot, this one, as you can probably tell.

Context:
Watched with the whole family over the course of a weekend from the DVD. There was some internal debate on my part about whether to view the original episodic version as broadcast, or the extended special edition feature-length version on the second disc. I went for the former. For the early episodes a couple of family members drifted in and out, but by the last two episodes, everyone - me, the Better Half, two boys, 11 and 8, and a girl, 5 - watched in enthralled silence. The eldest boy didn't like any hints of kissing or romance bits, wondered why Angela Bruce was saying 'Shame' "instead of the S-word" and was frankly baffled by her wanting to arrest people at the end of episode 1: what would they be charged with exactly? He has a point there.


First-time round:
I first saw this on its debut BBC1 broadcast in Autumn 1989, but can't remember much about it, if I'm honest. I can tell you that I would have been poised with the video recorder, finger hovering over the record button, ready to tape each episode as it went out. I know this, as that's how I prepared to watch all the final four seasons of original series Who, and would have done for many previous seasons had my family possessed a VCR earlier. This was during a brief period when I was not buying Doctor Who Magazine, but we were regularly getting the Radio Times (I remember avidly reading Michael Palin's Around the World in Eighty Days travel diaries in the RT during some weeks of season 26's broadcast). This meant that I hadn't read much in advance about the new season, except for the sheer blaze of mainstream un-publicity that the Beeb put out to accompany the launch (this comprised one short trailer and a half page interview with Sophie Aldred in the John Craven kids' section of the aforementioned listings magazine). Given that since 2005 I have had the internet (and in 1996, a magazine was published in advance of the TV movie detailing its entire plot from start to finish), this would be the last time I watched Who being fully unspoilered. And I don't even remember it. I don't even recall whether or not I knew the Brig was coming back. Oh well; so much for surprises.

Reaction:
It's a somewhat hackneyed view, but nonetheless one I share, that the 1989 season was the best season of Doctor Who for many a year, ironing out the issues of McCoy's previous seasons and presenting strong enjoyable story after strong enjoyable story. The obvious thing happened next - the show got cancelled. But the quality of the output had nothing to do with that decision, I'm convinced. At least it went out (temporarily, as it turned out) on a high. Except... it wasn't quite perfect, was it?  Battlefield was a bit pants. That's the fly in the ointment for any that love season 26 and regret that there was no season 27 the following year. What about the season opener with the ridiculous flying knights and Sophie Aldred overplaying "BOOM!" in unforgiving close-up? Well, this time round, I gave it a chance, watched with an open mind, and - reader - I loved it. Rather than being the clunker I thought it was, it was instead at least an 8 out of 10. Flawed, yes, but almost up to the quality of the other three stories shown that year.

Aside from the risible flying knights, and a couple of moments of 'large' acting which should have been reined in by the director, the only other major drawback, and possibly the key reason it isn't as well thought of as the other stories broadcast in 1989, is the incidental music. This is the only story shown this year with music composed by the much maligned Keff McCulloch. He is the least good of the three regular composers of this period to my mind, and usually the stories he scores are the weaker ones; is that a coincidence or something connected to his music? There's some good cues here, mostly when what's on screen is ominous and brooding, but everything else he tends to smother in tinny synth stabs and drum machine. Ignoring the music applied, though, Battlefield seems weaker when it's doing action or comedy compared to the ominous and brooding moments, so maybe Keff is just reacting to what he sees, and trying to lift the less good material.
 
McCoy has a few dodgy moments, but just as many brilliant ones: his reaction to the nuclear missile convoy's "graveyard stench" is particularly nice. The moment when Ace emerges from the lake, sword aloft, is very confident for a TV series which is supposed to be on its last legs. Angela Bruce is magnificent casting; she doesn't get to do a whole lot now I watch it back, but what she does is perfect; when she wields a sword and gets stuck in promising to do her job with some style, the new Brig has arrived. I'm sure she and the new UNIT would have been back in season 27 had it happened. The old Brig holds his own too; a couple of Nicholas Courtney's finest hurrahs are here; the big confrontation with the Destroyer, of course, but also the wonderful reaction on first hearing that the situation he's being drafted in to help out involves "the Doctor". Even Keff's twiddly synth enhances the magic of the moment. The Destroyer himself is a great creation, lifting the last couple of episodes - possibly he's a metaphor for nuclear destruction, or perhaps just a horned beast with a buff chest.

What comes over most of all when watching is how modern it is: underpinning the action - however cartoonish it gets - are the real emotions of plausible characters. The aside made at one point that whenever the Doctor turns up "All Hell breaks loose" is a refrain that the new series plays often, word for word sometimes. Also picked out are some regular McCoy era themes: a villain frustrated by the ravages of time, the Doctor as game player and arch manipulator (this time of himself), and a three-dimensional female villain brought down by her own grief. But why anyone would want to start this story (and the season, lest we forget) with a scene of two OAPs in a garden centre, baffles the mind. It's not representative or exciting, and it ruins the marvellous gag a few moments later when a UNIT soldier calls for the Brigadier and the person who turns up confounds all expectations. This is even staged as a long shot in a rear view mirror to add to the build up, and it would surely have been intended to come before the reveal of the older Brig in his retirement. I checked the special edition and they even retain it in the same place there too. Why not start off with Excalibur?

Connectivity: 
Both Battlefield and The Day of the Doctor introduce new UNIT personnel, build on the backstory of an incarnation of the Doctor of which we've not previously been aware, and contain the return of a series regular from another era. Both stories contain Jean Marsh interacting with UNIT (there's a picture of just such an event on the companion pin-board in Day of the Doctor), and Sylvester McCoy saying "Across the boundaries that divide one universe from another" - a clip of Battlefield is used as part of the sequence of all the Doctors working together in the 50th anniversary story.

Deeper Thoughts:
Old, New, Borrowed, Who. The producer of Battlefield, John Nathan-Turner, had been in charge for a long time by the time of its broadcast, and had publicly declared he was going to leave, before being persuaded to stay, at least twice by that point. Hanging on to Doctor Who was killing his career, but if he left it would kill the programme. No one in BBC management wanted to hand the show over to any other in-house producer, and not many would have wanted to pick it up anyway. Before casting Sylvester McCoy, Nathan-Turner's production had gone into nuclear meltdown with the script editor leaving, and the star being sacked. So, bringing in Sylv and appointing Andrew Cartmel, the script editor for the remaining three years of Classic Who's lifetime, must have been a relief as well as a breath of fresh air. Rather than sinking down to a combative level as he had done with the previous script editor, he let this younger man run with things. Cartmel got to reshape Doctor Who with a group of like-minded young writers without too much in the way of micro-management from his boss.

Interestingly, the initial attempts to deliver this new angle on the show - those stories that form the 24th season of Doctor Who, McCoy's first run - are popularly thought to have been a misfire. Things only came together (at least according to popular consensus) when Cartmel and his writers started to dig into the show's history - Cartmel's second year marked the 25th anniversary of the show's creation, which prompted some looking back - and they found that some of those archive stories were much more to their taste than the more recent shows before they took over. Battlefield launches the third and final year of Cartmel and McCoy, building on that anniversary season, and producing the best single run of stories in many a year. Again, as I mentioned above, this is all according to the popular view, and your mileage may vary, but - whatever we think of these stories - I think any but the most rabid anti-McCoy fan would agree that they could have been a lot worse. Presumably, it was Nathan-Turner's idea to bring back another archive element in the form of Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier character, and one can imagine the continuity-heavy bore-fest story this might have proved had it happened pre-Cartmel in 1985 or 86.

Why did it work so much better here? I can be a little slow sometimes, and it's only just occurred to me on this watch that writer Ben Aaronovitch's research before he completed the shooting script for Battlefield must have included watching 1971 Doctor Who story The Daemons. It existed (albeit not all in colour) in the archives in 1989, and had a good rep, making it an obvious touchpoint for a writer embarking on the first UNIT story in over a decade, and various elements of Battlefield mirror those in the earlier serial: the action centres on a village pub in which the regulars stay overnight, a helicopter goes up in flames, there's a cute ending scene where the regulars are suddenly seen in a more domestic context; Battlefield's foregrounded hints of the near-future setting (carphones, inflation, 5 pound pieces, the UK having a King) are the equivalent on the fictional channel BBC3, and The Destroyer bears quite a resemblance with Azal, the big bad of The Daemons.

Crucially, though, all this is done subtly, the plot does not rely on these details being known or even noticed, and an effort is made to do something new: the multi-country, multi ethnicity, multi-gender UNIT on show here, which has learnt from its previous skirmishes, is forward looking, and could have returned in this new form regularly had the show continued. Late in the scripting period, Battlefield still climaxed with the death of Lethbridge-Stewart. But a realisation dawned on Aaronovitch, which he's mentioned in quite a few interviews over the years, that it would be the wrong thing to do: Doctor Who can be remade afresh without the need to destroy or even ignore its history.


In Summary:
Despite its reputation, Battlefield is not at all bad. Everything else propaganda.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Day of the Doctor


Chapter The 76th, the Doctors' biggest birthday bash yet.

Plot: 
At the height of the Time War, three incarnations of the Doctor (current one Matt Smith, previous one David Tennant, and - as per the standard for these kind of shindigs - a Richard Hurndall-type stand-in played by John Hurt) are brought together by The Moment, a super-weapon with a conscience that looks just like that Billie Piper off the telly. They thought they were busy defeating a Zygon invasion plan in two time zones, but that was pretty easy stuff compared to their real mission, which is to ensure Gallifrey is never destroyed, but instead is tucked away in a pocket universe or some such. Pleasingly, there's time along the way to explain lines and in-jokes from previous years, have cameos from all the old Doctors, and have a sneak peek at the guy who hasn't even taken over yet. And it was in 3D, too, which was a bit of a waste of time: the BBC and everyone else pretty much abandoned 3D TV the minute after it was screened, but never mind.

Context:
Having enjoyed going to the BFI Southbank to see two Doctor Who animation projects unveiled (The Power of the Daleks in 2016 and Shada in 2017), when this screening of The Day of the Doctor was announced as part of a wider BFI John Hurt season, my fan-friends David, Chris and I got a ticket each (Trevor couldn't make this one, but with luck we'll all be reunited in ten month's time to see whatever Charles Norton's team are working on this year).  As it was not one of the special Doctor Who events per se, a few of the usual treats were not present: there was no quiz, no DVD giveaways, no 'shouting for Dick' (Dick Fiddy was in the audience rather than co-compering with the BFI's Justin Johnson), and - most surprising of all - no Frank Skinner involvement (it was his birthday, so he was understandably elsewhere).

Added to this, it was on a Sunday with no new product to show off; consequently, it was relatively low-key. NFT1 was more full than I expected, though. It's definitely a good one to watch on a big screen, which may have been a draw. No presence from super- or celebrity fans that I noticed, but a few good cosplayers turned up. And Chris did get to briefly introduce David and me to the very talented costume-maker Steve Ricks, who was resplendent in a Season 18 Tom Baker outfit. The BFI bar did us a nice brunch beforehand, but yet again it was too busy in there after the screening to hobnob, so we went a little way along the South Bank and had some cocktails, before getting the train home. A slight hangover ensued on Monday morning, but all in all a great day out again. Thank you BFI.

First-time round:
November 2013 was a rather wonderful time. I spent the week leading up to the Saturday of Day's broadcast in Paris for my day job. It was a warm late Autumn week, I got to travel there and back in style on the Eurostar, business class, the year's Beaujolais Nouveau had just become available, the work was not too taxing, and I had colleagues to go to nice restaurants with in the evening. It was 15 minutes on foot into the office from the hotel, so I walked it every day, feeling very sophisticated, as if I were a native. Lower on the sophistication scale, perhaps, I also had my bumper 50th anniversary edition of Doctor Who Magazine with me, which I would read over my hotel breakfast like a chic Parisian probably wouldn't.

I don't care about seeming sophisticated, though, really; case in point: I had as my laptop bag a rather wonderful faux retro manbag (pictured) that I'd picked up a few years before at the Earl's Court Doctor Who Experience. Coming home, I had just got through passport control at the Gare Du Nord on the evening of Friday 22nd November, with this bag over my shoulder, when I was freaked out by a uniformed local who stopped me, and said: "Your bag...". Oh my gosh! What was wrong with my bag?! I'd packed it myself, there were no sharp objects or liquids of volume greater than 100ml. I wasn't smuggling anything. Nothing to declare. Was I going to be detained and strip searched? "Your bag... is AMAZING!" I had been stopped by a fellow Doctor Who fan, who was admiring this neon logo adorned Tom Baker satchel. He proceeded to jump up and down on the spot with me in excitement at all tomorrow might bring. I love the wonderful unsophisticated French.

The following day, I was back home with plenty of wine and snacks. With my visiting friends Alex and Rachel, who've been mentioned a number of times before on this blog, alongside most of the family (me, the Better Half and the boys who at the time were 7 and 4 - our youngest child, a girl, was only 18 months old, so would have been asleep), I watched live as it was simulcast across the world. The story instantly became everyone's favourite, especially the two boys. Then they went to bed, and the adults would have watched  - no doubt at my insistence and to my shame - the After Party thing on BBC3.

It was so so awful: the sheer un-rehearsal of it all, and the various segments all competing to be the nadir: favourite companion actors being treated like props to be moved around a set (you could have powered a TV transmitter for a year using Fraser Hines' resentment alone), the sub-TFI Friday bar where schmucks got asked dumb questions, the stupid bit where they tried to find the best companion by getting all the actors who played them to stand up, and asking them questions, which was leading up to a stupid punchline but never really got there as nobody knew any of the answers to the questions, and they all really needed to sit down, particularly Bernard Cribbins, who as wonderful as he is is getting on a bit. Plus, the one good bit: where members of One Direction were regressed away into a squeal of white noise. I have only seen the thing once, more than four years ago, and I was pretty drunk by that point in the evening. For me to still remember it in such detail, it must have been excruciating. Luckily, I knew about the red button premier of Peter Davison's Five-ish Doctors comedy film later, and we finished the evening with that - perfect from start to finish.
 
Reaction:
If I had world enough and time or could be arsed, I would go back and look through the reviews of every Steven Moffat story I've covered for the blog so far to count up how many I've adored and how many I've slagged off. Despite it possibly feeling like I'm very negative, my gut feel is it would cleave at about 50:50, maybe 60:40, advantage on the love side. But, just because I don't like everything he's ever written for Doctor Who doesn't mean I don't understand he's a truly talented writer, a witty interviewee, and a wonderful ambassador for Doctor Who (which he'll probably be for ever more - it's a show that doesn't tend to leave one behind). All that talent, and any amount of good will, though, might have counted for nothing when it came to his writing a multi-Doctor anniversary show. It has defeated many a talented Doctor Who writer over the years, trying to write a good multi-Doctor anniversary show. That Moffat created something superb, with moral and emotional weight, as well as ticking all the fan service boxes, is testament to him. He's probably written a few stories that are better, but this will be the one that almost certainly proves the most memorable.

The plot has its author's usual level of complication - switching between multiple time zones and subplots, time travel back into earlier scenes, and so on - but uses deft touches to keep it all coherent and easy to follow. The visual spectacle is a triumph of production to get the very last penny of budget exploding onto the screen. Performances are strong across the board, with John Hurt dominating seemingly effortlessly as you would expect. The dynamics of the bickering Doctors is traditional, but none the worse for it, and handled well. And the little continuity tidy-ups are fastidious in their detail. In The Day of the Doctor we find extrapolations of dialogue from Doomsday in 2006: "I was there at the fall of Arcadia; someday I might even come to terms with that," and 2009's The End of Time "He still possesses the Moment, and he'll use it to destroy Daleks and Time Lords alike," and provides the punchline to a running gag - or more likely lots of random gags over the years - about Elizabeth the First that also featured in The End of Time plus The Shakespeare Code and The Beast Below.

Beyond the complications, though, there's real complexity. The Day of the Doctor picks up as its main theme a thread that goes all the way back to Rose and the first new series finale The Parting of the Ways, replaying the no-win scenario where an intervention to save lives costs millions of lives in turn. In short: coward or killer? There is something of a sidestep of the moral quandary ultimately: the Doctor refuses the choice, and is saved at the last minute by thinking of something clever; but that's Doctor Who, and a happy ending was obligatory in an anniversary romp. Anyway, mirroring this in miniature in the Zygon subplot allows for tangled repercussions of these sort of choices to be explored in future less rompy episodes, though I'm dubious as to at what level that sequel and the death of Osgood was all planned up front (as Moffat claimed in the later Q&A).

Tom Baker's walk-on at the end helps keep up the surprise factor, just when we thought it was all over; it makes sense too - just about - within the rules that the episode has set up. The only possible explanation of who Tom Baker's playing is a future incarnation of the Doctor re-wearing a favoured old face (which might go some way to explaining how the Gallifreyan paintings get to Elizabethan England too); if this is so, then it's been set up that, as the younger of the two, Matt Smith's Doctor can't properly retain the memories of their conversation. This would explain why in the next story he still thinks he's going to die at Trenzalore despite this strong evidence that he'll carry on. It would also explain why he doesn't do much following this to seek out Gallifrey, as he only remembers a last ditch gambit to save it, not the fairly resounding clue he was given that it did in fact survive. Obviously, he gets positive proof in one story's time anyway, and still doesn't do much to actively seek it out. But Moffat explained all that at the Q&A: the Doctor really hates the place.
 
My main quibble would be that David Tennant is not very well served during proceedings. Fans of his, like me, would probably be happy enough just to see him back in the suit again; but, it might have been nice for a bit more heroism and less out and out comedy. Also, Moffat has the Tenth do the same "I'm grandstanding with a big speech oops I've got the wrong end of the stick" gag three times over (once with the horse, once with the rabbit, once with the real Liz) to increasingly diminishing returns. Joanna Page is badly miscast as Elizabeth too, which further weakens this section. More minor quibbles: bad inhaler usage, which always ticks me off as an asthmatic myself, and finally: why would Coal Hill School have gone to the trouble of moving its location a few streets along, particularly if it meant that it was now right next to a junk yard? If the idea is it's always been there, then none of the first ever episode of Doctor Who makes any sense whatsoever - can I give you a lift home, Susan, in my car, to next door? No, I like walking 100 yards in the dark, it's mysterious. I'm sure nobody wants that: after all, that's where it all started.

Connectivity: 
They've both got a horse in them, and both show a city on fire (London in The Visitation, Arcadia in The Day of the Doctor). Both touch upon alien artifacts left on Earth in history being unearthed in the present day.

Deeper Thoughts:
Secrets from the Black Archive: panel with Steven Moffat and Marcus Wilson, Sunday 28th January 2018. It was nice to see Marcus Wilson interviewed again, he seems like a nice fellow, but the event was bound to be all about the Moff. Given that this is possibly his first public appearance since he officially stepped down from the showrunner role at Christmas, most of the interest (and all the audience questions) were for him. The most obvious thing, and for obvious reasons, is how relaxed he seemed. It's a very big weight that's been lifted, even though he hasn't left the world of Who behind quite yet. One of the first things mentioned was that he is working on a novelisation of The Day of the Doctor. I thought this was a gag at first, but it's true: Moffat is one of four writers producing Target-style novelisations for key post-2005 stories.

The rest of the panel discussion and subsequent audience Q&A garnered little that was new, but did offer up a few nuggets of interest. The idea of the War Doctor was born out of terror, when Christopher Eccleston declined to be involved. It was felt Eccleston was a good gruff Northern contrast to the other two "pretty-boys", in a way that Paul McGann, say, who was arguably the first modern dashing hero type Doctor, would not have been. The other obvious choice, but seemingly impossible at the time, was to get the first ever Doctor back. Without that option, the only choice was to find a missing wilderness years Doctor, someone famous enough during that period to conceivably have been offered the role. They only had John Hurt in mind, and if he'd turned it down "a glove puppet would have played it".

If Tom hadn't cameoed, the Moment would have come in at the end to talk to Matt. There was only ever going to be a subset of Doctors fully involved (as some just don't answer their phone anymore) which lead to Peter Davison's fan film being given a proper budget, as a good way to represent everyone. Moffat believes he achieved everything he wanted during his time as showrunner; if he had any regret it was only not using the Autons more, and not bringing back the Garm! He never planned a scene during Caplaid's era of his Doctor's POV of his eyebrows cameo - it's not a story. Moffat did not enjoy the After Party either; after the broadcast, he was, to quote him exactly: "So clenched, I could have snapped a proctologist off at the knuckle" All he wanted was a drink but instead he had to talk via video link to half a boy band of whom he'd never heard. He had nothing to do with Jodie Whittaker's casting, that was rightly all Chris Chibnall, but from what he's seen she is really funny, which he believes is essential. And finally, he sums up Doctor Who thus: "It's not about restraint, it's 'In Your Face' entertainment...we're not at home to Mr. Subtlety."

In Summary:
Call Lou Reed: this is as near as possible to a perfect 'Day'. (Geddit?! Also, please don't be surprised if you don't get an answer from Lou Reed.)

Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Visitation

Chapter The 75th, which features a dandy highwayman grabbing your attention.

Plot: 
The Doctor, aiming to return Tegan for the first day of her air-steward job at Heathrow Airport, gets there over 300 years too early (only a little bit longer than you're advised to allow when you're taking a long haul flight). Along with Nyssa and Adric, they stay to investigate when they find evidence that they are not the only aliens recently in the vicinity. Accompanied by local actor / highwayman, Richard Mace, because four people sharing the exposition was clearly not enough already, they discover a crash-landed party of lizard criminals, the Terileptils, who are genetically augmenting the plague that was already around, with the aim of killing all the human population and taking over the planet. The Terileptils also have an android which they dress up as Death to frighten away any snooping natives; the rest of the time they dress it up as one of Boney M, just because. The Doctor foils the plan but inadvertently starts a fire in London. It turns out to be 1666; who would have thunk it?

Context:
With the Christmas holidays nearing an end, there was a day or two left to watch a classic Who story with the whole family before we all returned to work and normality after the festive fun; strangely, not one of them (including the Better Half) moaned, resisted or absented themselves, they were all up for it. We watched the first three episodes in one sitting, following up a couple of days later with episode 4, from the special edition revisited Re-Visitation DVD. Then, weeks went by and various urgent stuff happened at home, and I had to go to Romania for the day job, believe it or not, and suddenly it's not even New Year anymore, let alone Christmas and I have only just started looking at my notes; luckily, The Visitation does not have intricate interweaving layers of plotting that would be hard to recall after a few weeks - it's pretty much as straightforward as Doctor Who gets.

First-time round:
Peter Davison's debut year was the first time I watched new broadcast episodes of Who semi-regularly. I choose the prefix carefully: I would have to miss every other episode because - Doctor Who being broadcast that year for the first time on two weekday evenings per week - one episode would conflict with a pre-existing commitment, my attendance at Second Durrington Cub Scout pack meetings. I missed episodes 1 and 3, but caught 2 and 4 - not ideal, but it could have been worse. Except, I didn't really. I feigned illness, I moaned and groaned, I weedled and persuaded as best I could. It might need spelling out to younger souls than me, but in those days if I didn't see an episode when it went out, I might have missed my only chance. There was no video recording or playing equipment in my house for another five years, and no one I knew for at least a couple more years had even heard of a video in early 1982, let alone got one. Episodes got repeated, but these were seemingly chosen and scheduled at random, so were also easy to miss.

The latter two episodes of The Visitation fell in the half term holidays when cubs wasn't on, so I should have been able to watch them both; unfortunately, a traffic jam on the way home from a family outing (a day detailed further in the Deeper Thoughts section of the blog post covering The Rescue) meant I missed episode 4, and had to wait until the story was repeated 18 months later, after a whole other new season had been broadcast (see what I mean about random scheduling), to find out how it ended.
 
Reaction:
The Visitation is an adventure in history, with a cute twist at the end to link in to a standard school text topic; what could be more Doctor Who than that? It’s what Who does: every other story or so, they go back in time, in between the alien planet or spaceship shenanigans. Right? Well, no, not really; between William Hartnell relinquishing the role and Peter Davison’s first season, you can count the number of stories set wholly in Earth’s past on two Sontaran three-fingered hands. Only after The Visitation does this start to become a regular story type again. This seems to be part of a ‘back to the basics’ push happening to make the show more like it was when it very first began, which I’ll go into a bit more depth about later.

It’s not exactly a failure and the year is diverse in its story concepts, but – particularly when watching a story in isolation – there are frustrations. In The Visitation, the first scene is an exciting cold open, where the threat of the week (remaining unseen all the while) attacks some newly introduced characters, who we’ll never see again. It’s not from the TARDIS crew’s POV, though, and when we cut to them we’re treated to a long sequence where the regulars are talking about the events of Kinda, the previous story. It squanders the energy that’s been built up and is also confusing in its detail: who cares or even remembers the TSS, a minor aspect of Kinda, so why are they banging on about it when - unbeknownst to them, but fresh in the audience’s minds - the squire’s family have just been butchered by assailants unknown? Get out of the TARDIS and start investigating, dammit. For all that they may seem slow now, those early Hartnell stories rarely dwelt in such a static way as this at the start of an adventure; they’d generally just recap the short cliffhanger end from last week, then get stuck in. 

Once it gets going, the story is a refreshingly straightforward adventure of aliens stranded in history making mischief; the Terileptils are conceptually and visually interesting and their leader is well performed by future Queen Vic landlord Michael Melia, who gets a couple of good confrontation scenes with Davison. Richard Mace, who was not an original creation but pre-existed as the lead character from writer Saward's earlier radio plays, is also fun but doesn't have much reason to be present at all: he doesn't contribute any help beyond a comic double-take now and again, and doesn't learn or grow based on his experiences. Everyone else in the piece is an underwritten cipher - has anyone living ever got referred to just as 'The Poacher'? Don't these people have names?

The end of episode 3, which I had to wait ages to see resolved, where a mesmerised Tegan reaches to open a cage and release a plague rat that will infect them all, frightened the whatsits out of me when I was a nipper; I was roundly mocked by all family members (even the 5-year old) when I confessed this. This time round, it occurred to me that never before or after this in the story do we see anyone infected by the plague, so it was quite an intangible threat (which maybe left my imagination to inflate it out of proportion). Also, does it even make sense? Could the infected fleas not jump out of the cage anyway, without a rat needing to be freed? Would the rats particularly go for anyone in the room if released anyway, or more likely just scuttle off into a corner? Best not to question, I think, or it will all fall apart

Connectivity: 
Both have a guest character travel in the TARDIS who has been plucked out of history, and who is comically bewildered by everything that's going on. That's about it.

Deeper Thoughts:
One of those Sixties medley mixes released in the early 1980s. As I mentioned above, whether consciously or unconsciously - and there must have been some deliberate action to shape this whether or not those shaping knew of the precedent - Peter Davison’s first year in the role, ‘season 19’, echoes the first year of the programme ever in the William Hartnell incumbency: there are three companions alongside the Doctor, one or more of whom are unwilling participants that got caught up in the Doctor’s travels whom he now is aiming to get back to their professional life in contemporary London; but, he’s having difficulty in doing this as he can’t steer the TARDIS. Additionally, each story picks up were the last one left off; it’s one adventure - singular - in Time and Space. The problem with repeating this approach in the 1980s is that Doctor Who had moved on significantly since its beginnings to accept a certain degree of direction and purpose in the Time Lord’s travels, i.e. he fights bad guys and monsters in a more heightened genre. It was perhaps too late to drop all that, and they don’t really try; instead, we get an uneasy mix of old school peripatetic wanderings through educational history and science, but with standing up to alien invasions and mad scientists too.

This was the next phase of a process started the previous year to reduce the silliness of Doctor Who. Part of this involved scraping off some of the gadgets that had been felt to make things a bit too easy; the hyper-intelligent companion had gone, K9 had gone, and The Visitation says goodbye (at least for a long while) to the sonic screwdriver. William Hartnell did without the magic wand to get past locked doors, after all. Well, yes; but, for Hartnell and crew, certainly at the beginning, the locked doors were the point. They weren't on any heroic mission, they were just trying to get back to the TARDIS, and so a device which made that easier by opening any cell door would have spoiled things. When they're locked in various places, the first four regulars in 1963/64 get to spark off each other with unique takes on their situation, because that's the point - to explore the situation, more than to defeat the bad guy; by 1982, that genie would not go back in the bottle.

The four regulars in Davison's first year don't have the different and specific purposes that the First Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan did, because the show didn't need that anymore. As Hartnell morphed into the hero rather than the unreliable uncle character, they did away with one role to form the rough template for the rest of the sixties: intellectual hero, action sidekick + one to ask questions / get into trouble. Once the Doctor was being played by a younger man and could plausibly do his own action bits, you only needed two regulars and this was how it was for most of the 1970s. In 1982, Adric is closest to being the one that gets into trouble (he twists his ankle in The Visitation, the biggest call back to 1960s Doctor Who tropes imaginable), Nyssa asks the questions (but is also very clever in a consistency-busting way). Tegan moans. In fact, at times in The Visitation, all of them are moaning, criticising or in some way undermining the Doctor.

My guess is that writers and script editors presented with all these characters use them as a certain standard of screenwriting theory or instinct would dictate: to generate conflict. After all, what’s the point of four characters if they agree on everything.  If they can disagree or even row about the steering of the TARDIS, or the Doctor’s heavy-handed style when acting as pater familias for Adric, or whether to walk or take the TARDIS (no, really, at one point they do argue about that) then it creates story beats which form scenes. This may be true, but it starts to have a cumulatively corrosive effect. None of the people he chooses to travel with appears to respect the Doctor, our hero, and nobody seems to be having any fun. So, why exactly am I watching this show? 

Worst of all, this set-up becomes a warm petri dish in which to breed padding. In simultaneously having too many characters who need something to do, and being stripped of the devices that speed up the narrative, stories like The Visitation end up with long, long sequences of Nyssa in the TARDIS building a thing to blow up the android. It's even a sonic thing she builds, exactly like the thing the Doctor keeps in his pocket. It feels like she spends hours of screen time over several episodes working on building a big sonic screwdriver, and then, once built, it's used, and it works. There's no reversal, it's a purely linear subplot of the most dull kind. If one were to reinstate the sonic and instantly cut all that, plus limit the companions in number so you could focus on making them interesting and believable, you'd get much more compelling adventures that could be told in half the time. It's no surprise that, come 2005, that's exactly what happened.

In Summary:
Linear and padded, but still a fun throwback.

Friday, 29 December 2017

Twice Upon A Time

Chapter The 74th, in which a swansong goes horribly, horribly wrong.

Plot: 
The original Doctor meets the latest Doctor at the South Pole, when both are at the point of regenerating but resisting it, and they team up in a desperate action-filled race against time while they hold back death. Incident after incident is overcome, as they defeat Daleks, Cybermen and various other Big Bads to save the universe, all the while being careful not to interfere in the events of the Doctor's own past. Through this, the two Doctors find a begrudging accommodation for each other that masks a real affection, and end up facing their separate fates as wiser individuals... Or maybe I nodded off after a few minutes of talky bollocks and dreamt all that, but it would have been better, wouldn't it? Instead, all action is suspended for an hour until the new showrunner takes over. There's a lot of talking in different rooms. So much talking. A First World War soldier and Bill Potts appear somehow, and there's presumably something significant that happens somewhere along the line, but it's convoluted and unclear. Then, the Doctor regenerates into Jodie Whittaker, and it's exciting for a split second, and then it's over.

Context:
To say I was disappointed by Capaldi's swansong is putting it mildly. As such, I'm going to reiterate that I was disappointed by Capaldi's swansong over and again in different ways in every section of this blog as a form of therapy; maybe eventually I'll come to terms with it. After the first watch on Christmas day, I watched the recording again in a quiet moment during the days after Christmas. On second watch, without the weight of expectation, it was still shit. In fact, knowing that it didn't amount to much no matter how long it went on, made it excruciating to wade through.


First-time round:
It was a couple of hours after the BBC1 broadcast, on the evening of December 25th 2017; the whole family gathered round, old school style, after the traditional turkey and mince pies feasting, and the playing of newly unwrapped board games, and watched the episode timeshifted on the PVR. This was myself, the Better Half and three kids (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5), plus two grandparents. This is the biggest audience an episode of Doctor Who has had in our house on Christmas Day (or any day) for a good few years. I put this down to excitement about the new female Doctor, and I hope it endures for next year's series, which I wish was starting sooner quite frankly.

Reaction:
I really hated it. Nothing happens. Stupidly. It must be hard to make nothing happen stupidly. The Better Half was losing patience before me, even ahead of the beginning credits, but I was still giving it a chance. Second time round, though, I found it irritating that early on too. There's a lot of pointless nattering. Mark Gatiss turns up as a soldier out of time and no one ever asks his name, so any twist about his identity is immediately telegraphed. We then flash back to this nameless soldier during his time in Paul McCartney's Pipes of Peace video. No matter how important a historic event this day and year of the war was, it's become so crowded a locale (every one from Sainsburys to The Farm has parked themselves on this battlefield over the years) that it can't help but seem somewhat risible.

There's a timing malfunction (always the two most thrilling words to grace a Doctor Who script - who needs 'alien invasion', eh?) and we're back to where we started with the Time Lord nattering to himself. Then, all three go into the TARDIS. Ten minutes have passed, and the only significant action by any of the characters is that they've retreated inside the TARDIS. At this point, I'm wondering who in their right minds apart from really hardcore fans (i.e. even worse than me) would give a toss about anything being discussed. I'm also really conscious that Capaldi needs a haircut. I can't be engaged if I'm noticing that sort of stuff. In the TARDIS there's an interminably long trivial scene about brandy and the decor. Then, Moffat seems to be confusing some attitudes displayed by William Hartnell as played by David Bradley in a bio-pic with those of the first Doctor as played by David Bradley now. But even the real Hartnell himself, reportedly quite old fashioned in his attitudes, wasn't as bad as the character depicted here. Did the Doctor ever expect Polly to dust in the TARDIS? Where's that come from? It may seem like a bit of fun, but this is one of my heroes being trashed.

Ten more minutes of chat and an arbitrary change of location informs the audience that something called Testimony is harvesting people's memories at the point of their death, which is a vague, conflict and excitement free concept. But it does introduce Bill Potts again, or a duplicate of her. It's not very clearly foregrounded, but it looks like the dramatic question presented is whether to give up the soldier to his death or not, maybe in exchange for Bill. Despite being talked around for swathes of everyone's precious Christmas day, it's still not clear or tangible because no one has gone to the effort of making the dilemma visual. Next are some flashbacks from old episodes to show how bloodthirsty the Doctor is (a trick Moffat seems to have played 100 times now) and another arbitrary change of location. We're only a third of the way through and my soul has died. From this point on, it's just more of the same really: natter, natter, change location arbitrarily, trash reputation of the first Doctor, more brandy, another Mark Gatiss dopey comic double-take, rinse, repeat. There's a detour which ties up a loose end that literally nobody cared about ever: what became of Rusty, the malfunctioning Dalek that was in one episode three years ago. And it carries on.

There is some investigation, but no sense of urgency or escalation at all. And any facts uncovered are pointless; the Testimony project or collective or whatever turns out not to be evil, so the story doesn't actually have anyone driving it forward either for good or bad, it was all just some stuff happening. And it keeps happening, for ages, until both Doctors decide finally to regenerate for a reason that's somewhat underwritten. Bradley's exit is odd, as Ben and Polly don't reappear (and they should do), but Capaldi gets to see his old friends again, and does a speech that's this time somewhat overwritten. Jodie Whittaker is great in her brief moment as the new Doctor, and the cliffhanger ending is good, but it isn't enough to save things. 

Connectivity: 
Both Peter Capaldi stories which see an aspect of the original classic series returning (the writer, the first Doctor); both feature battlefields, soldiers who go through some timey-wimey weirdness, and an armistice between previously warring sides.

Deeper Thoughts:
Looking back, looking forward. I'd said last time that I expected to be done with looking back over Capaldi's tenure, and I do think I've said all there is to say about that. I forgot, though, that this story also marks the end of Steven Moffat's tenure. Not that I haven't said a lot about him too over the years of doing the blog, but there's probably more to be said, as he's just been so inconsistent and uneven for me that it has felt like there have been several different Moffats running the show over the years. One thing that has been broadly consistent is that he can't bring himself to write anything simple. There should be no shame in doing a straight-ahead big tent pole alien invasion, zap 'em defeat 'em action adventure story. It is the bread and butter of Doctor Who, and can certainly be more enjoyable than something overwrought or overthought (not that I don't enjoy some of the clever clever ones too, but not all the time). When the pressure's on to produce something big, it must be difficult, and Moffat faced the most pressure ever, as he had to write the 50th anniversary show where expectation was at its highest. But he pulled that off with aplomb. Then, with the following story he had the comparatively minor challenge of doing his first ever regeneration story, and The Time of The Doctor was markedly less successful.

Like Twice Upon a Time, The Time of The Doctor gets itself tied in knots trying to be an elegy rather than just being an exciting adventure for the overfed holiday audience. Neither has any story per se, just a long repetitive sequence of events delaying the inevitable final moment, plus some continuity tidying and speechifying. This is frustrating when we know the same author can sometimes cram enough plot for whole seasons of Doctor Who into one 45 minute segment, but for some reason if it's a swansong, he's happy for people to just stand about talking. It's doubly frustrating this year, as Moffat had really turned things around after a moribund patch and delivered the most interesting season in years, and triply frustrating when he has all the potential of David Bradley's First Doctor to play with, and just squanders it. This is the roller-coaster ride that Doctor Who fans have been on since 2010

Looking forward, things look much more promising. I'm so used to overblown post regeneration dialogue that I was convinced Whittaker would add something silly about her hair or kidneys to spoil her well-judged and well delivered first word and a bit, but luckily Chibnall resisted. Less is more. The Doctor is separated from the TARDIS and falling to her doom. Roll credits. Nice. Similar but different enough to the last regeneration handover point, when Moffat took over from Russell T Davies, to be homage rather than rip off. If I ever watch this again, I suspect it will only be these final two minutes or so. That's a shame, as Capaldi, Bradley and Moffat himself deserved better. Anyway, dear reader, have a very happy new year in 2018. See you back here in January for more randomly picked stories - it can only get better from here.

In Summary:
Here's a fan edit suggestion: the Doctor, having just defeated the Cybermen at the end of The Doctor Falls, has visions of Bill, Clara and Nardole, does his nice speech about never being cowardly nor eating pears, then regenerates into Jodie Whittaker, and she gets her great first line and cliffhanger ending. The Christmas special would only be four minutes long, but one could use the rest of that time to eat mince pies or play the family at Cluedo. And that would be nice, wouldn't it?

Sunday, 24 December 2017

The Eaters of Light

Chapter The 73rd, several species of time travellers gathered together in a cave grooving with some Picts.

Plot: 
The Doctor, Bill and Nardole go to 2nd century Aberdeen to investigate the mystery of what happened to the famously disappeared Ninth Roman Legion, only to find out they were all killed by aliens (surprise surprise). The local Picts guard a cairn that conceals a gateway to another dimension in which a swarm of light-eating beasties live. One of them was allowed through to deal with the Romans, but has stuck around to terrorise everyone, including the local tribe and the legion's few survivors. The Doctor and Bill persuade members of both these groups to team up and fight the monsters on the threshold of the portal, and the ensuing battle - due to time dilation effects - lasts for centuries, and keeps the creatures trapped.

Context:
A little hiatus was caused in the blog-stream by the combined factors of my PC dying, and my setting myself the challenge of watching 24 Christmas specials and films during advent, which took up a lot of viewing time. On top of that, the Blu-ray box set of series 10 containing Capaldi's 2017 episodes (bar one final important one, of course) had arrived, and also demanded attention. As I did when the series aired, I randomly picked one episode from the box set to blog, which happened to be this Celtic swirl. I grabbed a morning early during the pre-Christmas period to watch the story, and typed it all up double-quick as - at the time of writing - I still have everything to wrap, and After Eights and whatnot to buy.

First-time round: 
This went by in a flash first time round earlier in the year. I've mentioned before that the structure of the series somehow warped things a little for me, the trilogy of Monk stories in the middle dominate to the detriment of the much more fun unconnected single-episode tales either side. Coming as it does sandwiched between that big (and slightly bloated?) centrepiece and the two-part Cyber-finale, The Eaters of Light - like the similarly fun but story-arc lite Empress of Mars that came before it - feels a little tossed away, which is a shame. Watched in isolation, it made much more of an impression, and made me pine for more episodes with this Doctor and this team. At least Capaldi and Mackie have one more outing, but watching this I'm missing Gomez and Lucas too.

Reaction:
For long-term fans, the writing of this episode was significant, as it saw the first time an author of a twentieth-century episode returned to the modern show. This was Rona Munro, who penned the story Survival (the final story of the original run, aired in 1989) and who since then has built up a great body of work in film and theatre. Objectively, though, I don't think anyone who wasn't aware of this would see any join, it just seemed like any of the other stories not any kind of throwback, nor a piece with a distinctive authorial voice shouting out. It's tempting to think therefore "Why bother?" but it's always good to vary the writing duties. I don't know whether it was the Scottish Munro or her Scottish showrunner who suggested the subject matter, but it's a nice fit for her, and gives the story a distinctive locale (although it presumably was filmed no further North than the Brecon Beacons).

The guest cast, by dint of the story structure, don't stand out too much - they are supposed to be the young, unheroic remains of the two decimated groups - but there's still some great material involving them. Most memorable of all is the scene where Bill's assumptions about her new found allies' morals and broad-mindedness are called out. Bill has a great episode all told - challenging the Doctor, working out about the telepathic TARDIS field that translates everyone's words with added lip-sync, and giving a great speech to rally the troops: "I can't promise that you won't all die, but I can promise you this: you won't all die in a hole in the ground." Nardole's material, though superfluous, is fun (was this perhaps one of the scripts written before they agreed with Matt Lucas that he'd be in every episode - he could be lifted straight out without impacting the plot one iota). And Capaldi is on good if slightly grumpy form too.

I'm not 100% sold on the talking crows, and the slight corny (or should that be 'caw-ny', it should, shouldn't it... or shouldn't it?) twist that they have been venerating Kar's name all this time. I'm also not sure that we need the bookend sequences with the children visiting the stones and hearing the music. The end bit with Missy, though, is a lot more successful. It goes on too long, but seeing a tear run down Missy's cheek at hearing the music trapped in the stones is a touching and characterful way to integrate the ongoing series arc.

Connectivity: 
Both written by those rare Doctor Who authors who have become renowned for a non-Who body work in their own right. And a third story in a row where a character is decked in incongruous nighttime attire (Nardole's in a dressing gown throughout - another Arthur Dent homage?)

Deeper Thoughts:
Another Doctor over, and a new one just begun. And So this is Christmas. In total disregard for random ordering, I have decided to blog Twice Upon a Time sometime before the end of the year; but, I have a feeling that any deeper thoughts it inspires will involve looking forward rather than back, so I'll look back now. No matter how good Peter Capaldi's swansong is, and how well David Bradley and the production invoke the role and the era of the first Doctor, it is all inevitably going to be overshadowed by the first few moments of Jodie Whittaker's thirteenth Doctor at the end. Doctor Who handovers are cruel that way - 58 minutes of action inevitably becomes so much prologue. It feels this time, though, that the effect is even greater than usual. The most comparable past point would be The End of Time, the last time a story marked a Doctor and senior crew bowing out and handing over the reins to a totally new actor and team. But watching that previous story did feel like the end of an era, more than the start of a new one. This is because David Tennant felt like he'd owned the part over a decent run. Despite the duration and number of episodes done by Capaldi being broadly similar, I don't get that feeling with him.

Why might this be? I've decided upon a one word answer: Clara. Watching the box set of series 10, I am amazed all over again at how Steven Moffat after so many years in charge has produced a set of episodes that feel so fresh. This feels like Capaldi's year one, and leaves me wanting him to do at least two more. I'm not alone in thinking that Jenna Coleman not leaving in Last Christmas was a mistake. Her second year with Capaldi is damaging to the show as it was in desperate need of the shake-up a new regular would have given it. But I'm coming round to the idea that she shouldn't have done the year before that either. Much as I like series 8's domestic grounding in Coal Hill, it's too much about Clara, who'd already dominated the previous year with all that impossible girl guff. Capaldi should have started out with a blank slate, and a new companion. He only got this in 2017, and so it feels like he's leaving when he's only just started.

Series 10 was generally successful in it's story arc as well as it's character dynamics. A bit less monk would have been welcome, but all in all it's probably my favourite year of Moffat's reign. One plotting thing that bothers me, mind, is when and how exactly Nardole was resurrected, and when exactly the Doctor Mysterio story happens relative to the events we later learn about the vault. It's said in that Christmas show that the Doctor rebuilt Nardole as he was lonely, and it's hinted very strongly that this is because River's gone. But if so, how could River send Nardole off to stop the Doctor executing Missy in Extremis, if she'd already gone to meet her fate. (Incidentally, it's best not to think about how River leaves the Doctor then spends an unidentified length of time hiring a new archaeological crew and having adventures with them before finally reaching the library, as it completely destroys the bittersweet parting stuff.) And if Nardole only teamed back up with the Doctor in Extremis, then why is he so happy to be with the Doctor adventuring in New York with superheroes when they should be guarding the vault? Answers on a postcard, or in a Big Finish play in four years time.

Blog Stats? I've watched a personal best of 33 stories for the blog this year, which will be 34 assuming I manage to file copy on this year's Christmas special before December 31st. This would form a healthy 20 / 14 split, old series to new - a nice mix. I've watched only five black-and-white episodes, and three of those five had episodes missing (one of them being wholly missing). I usually tend to have a story from most of the Doctors bar one - this year it was a Christopher Eccleston story I neglected to land upon. The most popular new series Doctor in terms of stories blogged was the incumbent, Peter Capaldi, and the most popular old series Doctor was the longest running, Tom Baker, so that all seems right and proper. Next year, Chris Chibnall is reducing the number of stories he produces a year, so if I can keep up my current pace, I might just catch up before I claim my pension. And on that optimistic note, it only remains for me to add the traditional "Happy Christmas to all of you at home". Cheers!

In Summary:
Good and solid, like a slab of granite.