Sunday, 10 September 2017

School Reunion

Chapter The 65th, it's September, which means it's back to school.

Plot: 
The Doctor and Rose are contacted by Mickey to investigate intriguing developments at a school in London, Wales. The school turns out to have been taken over by noisy bat-people aliens called the Krillitane. They want to use the schoolchildren as a gestalt supercomputer to crack the mathematical equation that controls the universe; to help them they use a special (magic) oil which has many and contradictory properties like making children clever and obedient, blowing up Krillitanes, moving the plot along, and making chips taste nice when they're fried in it. None of that matters, though, as the key event for the Doctor is bumping into his old friends Sarah Jane Smith and K9, who are also investigating the school, which allows him to enjoy a good old whinge about his extended mortality, and the shortness of human lives, and all that stuff that makes him look deep.

Context:
In the last week, all the children (boy of 11, boy of 8, girl of 5) went back to school, so I thought one afternoon they might like to watch this, as - although it was randomly chosen - it would have some thematic resonance. No dice, though: there was not a single flicker of interest. I waited until the evening when they were abed instead, and watched alone as the Better Half was busy (though she did wander in at one point, and have to tear herself away from the nice close-ups of the scrummy and very fresh-faced Tennant on screen - this story was part of his first recording block, so he looks awfully young).

First-time round: 
I watched this live on its debut transmission on BBC1 in 2006. The Better Half and I had got married at around the time they started filming the Christopher Eccleston series, and for the year following that we lived in Kent where she was teaching at the time. Late in 2005, we moved back to the Sussex coast, where we'd both spent our childhoods; by that time, we were expecting our first baby. We didn't sell and empty the flat in Kent straight away, though, and did many trips back in the spring of 2006. I remember buying the Radio Times with Doctor Who on the cover in Gillingham before the season started,and sitting on a box in an almost empty room looking at the fold-out cover that (for some reason) showed the Doctor, Rose, Sarah Jane and lots of monsters all holding hands in a chain. I likely got shouted at a minute later for sitting on my arse and letting my pregnant wife do all the work. Anyway, I associate the stories of David Tennant's first season with this transition, and it was indeed a period of transition for the show too.

Reaction:
I've described the 2006 series of stories before as New Who's Difficult Second Album; losing the leading man, despite getting a very good replacement, has altered the mix, and something's not quite right. They'd fix it; the following years are much slicker, and a few stories of Tennant's first run are excellent. But many, including School Reunion, seem - for want of a better word - fake. There's something hollow and unrealistic about the world of this story. From the very first scene, the background feels like a superficial and shiny representation of a school rather than a real establishment. This is a shame, as it's quite an original setting for Doctor Who (in fact it was the original setting) - it's the first full story to take place inside a working school full of pupils, though a few early scenes of the very first episode in 1963 have a similar setting. With the reintroduction of Coal Hill (the fictional place of education from that first ever episode) when Clara later worked there, it would become a much more common playground, but in 2006 this was new.

Anthony Head, who's mostly very good in the rest of the story at being a traditional yet uniquely alien villain, is twirling a moustache in the opening scene, where he believes that because a pupil is from a children's home, and has no parents, he can eat her. Notwithstanding his need for all the children intact to further his mad plan, are we to understand the institutions of this story universe really aren't going to notice one of their charges disappearing. Are we in a realistic environment or a heightened fairy tale one? I don't think the writing or production has quite made up its mind, and this uncertainty infects the rest, with the story veering scene by scene from wonderful to cringe-a-mundo (a word I have never used before and hopefully never will again). One negative, and apologies for being a bit controversial and having to speak ill of the dead, is that Liz Sladen is a very limited actress; she was generally fine as Sarah Jane first time round, when nothing too demanding was required and her face still had some movement. But to make the story centre on her loss and abandonment issues was a risky move.

To be fair, it's mostly a perfectly serviceable performance, although not very in keeping with the character - she was one of the original series companions that had the fullest life away from the Doctor; it stretches credibility to think this independent woman has been living in his shadow for thirty odd years. There's one moment where it all comes together, the scene where Sarah Jane finds the TARDIS hidden in the school and turns to see Tennant in the shadows, in heroic pose, and they exchange some cracking dialogue. Elsewhere, though, it's dragged down by someone's bright idea of adding the very male humour about the Doctor's old and new companions acting like "the Missus and the Ex" which then means the two female actors involved have to do lots of demeaning bitchy acting, which isn't very apt or very funny. Worse, there's then a scene where in a short space of time they have to both go from sniping at one another, to competing to outdo the other's experiences, to bonding, to uncontrollable laughing. This writing is un-actable for even the very best performer, so isn't very convincing here (though obviously some of the references were fun for us long-term obsessives, but fan service is not a good enough reason to keep it in). It should have been possible to have covered the intriguing aspects about loss and adventure and mortality without sexisim, and without any actor or character having to throw away their integrity.

Mickey and K9 fair a bit better, probably as the lesser focus on them entails more subtlety. Mickey realising he's the 'tin dog' is a wonderful moment for the character, as is his solution to pulling the plug on the nefarious Krillitane scheme. K9's self sacrifice at the end has fans of a certain vintage punching the air too. Other characters get short shrift from an already busy 45 minutes that appears to have had some vicious cuts. There's a focus on the character of Milo, who then completely disappears from the narrative bar a cryptic message later that screams out "missing scene". But it's doubly damaging, as it sets up that it's only Milo being made clever, when all the children are later shown to have similarly been got at, without much story time having elapsed between. It also means that Kenny, the hero of the guest cast, gets even less screen time to be established.

Connectivity: 
Both stories feature K9, and in both he's damaged and in need of mending. Both feature infiltrating alien creatures implausibly disguised as humans.

Deeper Thoughts:
Driving and Schools. The story under consideration this time features a high school and some dangerous driving; both of these remind me of my own youth and adolescence (ask the few people who've been driven by me), and have - apologies in advance - opened the car door to a bit of a reminisce. I was an out and proud Doctor Who fanboy at school from early on, often to be found sketching out Daleks or copies of Target novelisation covers, writing my own Doctor Who comic strips, or wandering round the playing field reading the Doctor Who Magazine Summer Special 1983. I made friendships through Doctor Who; I first bonded with one of my oldest friends, Alex, who's been mentioned a few times in the blog, over a shared love for the show and dislike of P.E. But occasionally, other schoolchildren would confuse my enthusiasm with my being a member of the production team and having responsibility for what aired. Any time anyone had a problem with the show they'd come to tell me, as if I could do anything about it. This was worst after the broadcast of Colin Baker's debut, The Twin Dilemma episode 1. I had a number of kids aggressively telling me they'd never watch the programme ever again; John Nathan-Turner owed me some therapy sessions.

I must have stood out at school a bit, in a certain way, because of this or maybe other factors. I have a few times over the many years since bumped into people from school whom I didn't recognise but who remembered me. On a couple of different occasions, separate people have voiced a variation on the comment "Of course I knew it was you, because of your glasses." Now, this is interesting as I never had glasses at school; I got my first pair of specs in my fresher year at university. I must have just looked like the sort of (computer and Doctor Who loving) person who ought to have glasses back then, and that made an indelible psychological impression on some. Not that I didn't need glasses at school necessarily, my myopia was probably quite a while undiagnosed. On the (only a few!) times I took my driving test, the bit that terrified me most was not being allowed to drive at all if I failed the very first task, reading a number plate in the car park., If they were too far away, I just couldn't see them, which may have explained a thing or two about the quality of my driving.

I never really wanted to learn to drive; but thanks to the persistence and passive-aggressive generosity of a well-meaning parent, I had no choice. If you're bought a second-hand car as a birthday present, you don't have much room for manoeuvre. To misquote Ferris Bueller: I asked for a computer, I got a car: how's that for being born under a bad sign? It seemed a waste of money to me, all the insurance and petrol; plus, I was just beginning to understand the environmental implications too. I eventually passed my test, but when I then drove my car, I kept damaging it by hitting thankfully inanimate things. The car patched up for the beginning of my second year of Uni, I drove myself and Zahir (another Doctor Who fan, and recurring character in the blog) up to Durham without incident. But, days later, before term had even started, I rendered it an insurance write-off. I have not driven since. But this week, I was reading an article. Apparently, millennials - that wonderful rare hothouse breed that jaded Gen-Xers like me love to read about - are choosing not to drive in greater numbers; the number of 20-somethings with a licence has declined by more than 20% since 1994, with rising fuel and insurance costs cited as a reason, and probably technology changing leisure habits a factor too, I would think: social media becoming increasingly a supplement to real world meets. In other words, they'd rather have a computer than a car. So, it wasn't that I was rubbish at driving, you see - I was merely ahead of my time! 

In Summary:
Final report: the exploration of the Doctor and companion's relationship, their lives, and their mortality - A+; the Krillitane plot - B; the Missus and the Ex idea, and the silly bitchy scenes to which it gives rise: D. Overall: Could do better.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Leisure Hive

Chapter The 64th, which makes Who feel, yeah it ma-a-a-akes Who feel, shiny and new...

Plot: 
The Doctor and Romana visit Argolis, a planet of tourism where you can hear obscure scientific lectures and can't step out onto the surface because of the fall-out from a nuclear war (exactly what any right thinking person would want from a vacation). The Argolin race is dying out, having been made sterile by the war, but an Earth scientist Hardin is working on some confusing but nice experiments to save them; it turns out, though, that the youngest of the Argolin, Pangol, is also working on some confusing experiments to save them, but evil. Pangol has been cloned by the Argolin's science of tachyonics, as it can clone things as well as make things travel faster than light, reverse ageing, and make your limbs fly off in amusing directions without harming you; this is because it is a thoroughly worked out science, and definitely not made up magic nonsense at all. Also present are a faction of tubby lizard creatures who are trying to sabotage things, so they can buy up the planet, and another faction of the lizards trying to stop the first faction, and the Doctor gets aged for a while, and cloned too. It can get hectic when you have a holiday, can't it?!

Context:
Watched from the DVD on a Sunday on my own after the family got back from our own holiday (see the Deeper Thoughts section below for more details). People wandered in occasionally but nobody but me went the full distance. Middle child (boy of 8) stayed longest; he's the biggest Doctor Who fan in the family after me right now, I think. The Better Half came in during episode 4 and claimed no memory of ever watching this one with me before (she says she definitely would have remembered a young David Haig with a green face).

First-time round: 
I moved in to a flat with the Better Half during Easter weekend 1996, a studio apartment with no central heating, a black-and-white TV, and a one-bar electric fire. Bliss. This was the first time I'd lived outside the parental home or halls, and it was jolly exciting; I was taking new steps on life's road, and watching Doctor Who stories I'd never seen before, and in very real ways equating the two. The Better Half and I were sufficiently in love that she didn't mind my Doctor Who video collection. None of those tapes were inflicted on her too soon, though, as we didn't have a VCR to begin with; plus, the Beeb had suspended releases at that point, as the Paul McGann TV Movie was imminent, and its senior production people didn't want old stories to share the shelves with it, when it was released on video. Apart from one other release in the Autumn as a tribute to the recently departed Jon Pertwee, nothing except the TV Movie was released until the VHS range was relaunched in January 1997 with The Leisure Hive.

The VHS release marked the first time I'd got to see the story. I'm ashamed to say that I was watching (and loving) Buck Rogers in the Twenty-First Century on ITV rather than catching Gallifrey's finest on their trip to Argolis when it was first broadcast in 1980. But I didn't know what I was missing, as I didn't get hooked on Who until the following year, when they showed a season of repeats, see here for more on that. In 1997, I got to watch it in colour, as by then I had saved enough pennies to pay for a colour licence and get a VCR. I was temporarily alone, though, and missing my beloved who had started her university course (we'd met during her year out). This is probably why she didn't get to see it then. It probably cheered poor lonely me up a bit, but not enough.

Reaction:
Orson Welles' Touch of Evil starts with a sequence achieved in a single long shot that tracks a car, which we see at the very start has had a bomb planted on it. The camera drifts around various people and locations, following the car, introducing the main characters, setting up the world in which they operate, and all the time building suspense as the bomb ticks. The Leisure Hive also starts with a single long, long tracking shot which shows some deckchairs. One of these shots is justly celebrated, the other is from The Leisure Hive. It's baffling, particularly given the efforts all round by the incoming John Nathan-Turner to make his first story as producer a shiny and exciting new start for Doctor Who, that he let episode 1 go out starting with a ninety second sequence where nothing happens. You even hear snoring (the Doctor's) on the soundtrack.

It doesn't stop there; The Leisure Hive contains visual sequences dotted throughout that halt the action, or at least take place significantly slower than scenes either side. Probably Bickford's exemplar was not Welles but Stanley Kubrick's work in 2001 A Space Odyssey, but that film is constructed wholly of long mostly wordless sequences, so any one sequence feels part of the overall pace. And Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, as successful as he was, was still nonetheless being indulgent: life happens in our consciousness in fast cuts, only a distancing godlike perspective sees things in long fluid sequences; he had to make it absolutely perfect to justify the artifice. So, I'm basically saying Lovett Bickford, director of this story, was being more indulgent. Than Orson Welles. Or Stanley Kubrick. Dwell for a moment on exactly how much chutzpah a director working at the BBC requires for that.

Multiple times on the DVD documentaries accompanying the story, John Nathan-Turner is praised for getting the budget onto the screen in as glossy a way as possible (he gives the show a much-needed kick up the Eighties with a spruced up theme tune and new opening credits sequence, for example) while simultaneously he's criticised for not having any narrative understanding. This possibly explains Lovett Bickford's excesses. He's been given leeway by a producer keen to make a visual splash, but that producer doesn't realise when his visuals are working against the story, and doesn't intercede. Not to say that every choice by Bickford is bad. He inspired June Hudson (Costumes) and Peter Howell (incidental music) to do great things here, and some of his work hits home - the hive's exteriors really feel like they are outside on a desolate planet, for example. It would be lovely to see a screenwriter's cut, though, with every confusing shot or reuse of the shuttle-docking model footage snipped out. Ditto the entire beginning sequence on Brighton beach - five whole minutes - as it doesn't move the plot on at all; there's a bit of exposition and a histrionic bit to write out K9, but essentially it just covers a decision by the TARDIS team to go on holiday, which could have been conveyed on the move in a scene starting on Argolis. There's one tiny moment, the first, long held-back reveal of Tom Baker's face in a big close-up (Bickford loves close-ups) which is worth keeping, but the rest can go.
Other personnel on the story are also trying a little too hard on their virgin run. Christopher Hamilton Bighead, sorry I mean Bidmead, arrives as a missionary in the land of Doctor Who, keen to spread the gospel of scientific rigour and wag a finger at any sinful silliness. But he gets bogged down immediately in unnecessary technical detail. Underneath all the trappings, this is a traditional story, written after all by the go-to writer of the previous couple of years (the 'silly' era that Bidmead and Nathan-Turner were meant to be kicking against). This story takes a long time to get going, though, as for the early episodes everyone is doing experiments. Someone dies in the tachyonic generator, but nobody investigates, and instead they hit the lab and melt egg-timers. Only towards the end of episode 3, when everyone's had their fill of showing off, do things step up a gear. Mafia lizards are unmasked, a xenophobic madman starts threatening to blow everybody up, an army of clones marches. But it's too late to make the story truly great, as it could have been.

Connectivity: 
Both stories have a subplot where the military has given way to science, and both contain a Doctor that's aged over 1000 (Tom after he's been aged by the generator, and Matt Smith is that old anyway after all that monkeying around with the astronaut in the lake and whatnot).

Deeper Thoughts:
A Tale of Two City Breaks. Last year, without really planning it, I ended up spending my summer holiday in a Doctor Who filming location, Leeds Castle, and watched the appropriate story while there. This year, I considered various destinations where it might be possible to repeat this experience, but in the end just reverted to the family default of a week renting a cottage in the Isle of Wight (as it's not too dear). I didn't think any stories had been filmed there, but a quick perusal of my Bignell (not a dodgy euphemism, but a flick through Richard Bignell's 2001 reference book 'Doctor Who on Location') revealed that it has happened once. As well as filming in Portsmouth and in the Solent, the crew of The Sea Devils took a hovercraft (it's a Jon Pertwee one, so it must have been a hovercraft, surely) to sunny Vectis for various scenes of that 1972 story.

As I'd watched and blogged Doctor Who and the Silurians recently, it felt too soon to do its sequel and publish thirteen episodes' worth of prehistoric hi-jinks in one month; plus, the Isle of Wight filming for Sea Devils was mainly of cliffs, and there'd be nothing for the kids to do if I dragged them there. Maybe next year. The ultimate Sea Devils themed holiday, of course, would be to visit No Man's Land Sea Fort, which has now been converted into a hotel. It would be great; you could sit in your room and enact the moment when the undersea creatures infiltrate, or you could pretend to be stuntman Stuart Fell pretending to be Katy Manning climbing the steps to board. The trouble is it's been converted into a luxury hotel, and at upward of 400 pounds per person per night, it seems a little steep, just so I can watch the DVD and say "I've been there". As a gesture, I took a photo from the Catamaran on the way over to the Isle of said sea fort (or likely one of the other ones, they all look the same from this distance). It is reproduced here for your pleasure.

Anyway, I let the randomiser do its thing, and packed the DVD it nominated in my suitcase, planning to watch it one evening in the cottage after we got back from the beach. It was a somewhat apt choice as The Leisure Hive is one of those stories, like The Androids of Tara from last summer, where the characters are having a holiday too. But it was geographically inappropriate, as The Leisure Hive is one of the few stories filmed in my neck of the woods. Watching it in Shanklin, I would have been significantly further away from the location depicted than I would have been at home. In the end, I did watch the story at home. In another chapter in the death of physical media, this was the first place we've booked in many years that didn't have a DVD player. I didn't even think to check, I never imagined it wouldn't be there as standard, but I suppose it's the way things are going. It had a smart TV box, so we could have watched some Doctor Who, if I could have been bothered to link to Netflix and put in my account details; but Netflix doesn't carry The Leisure Hive, or any classic series episodes. So, I watched it after the holiday. I didn't take my laptop to Brighton beach to do this, so there's no photo except for the usual one of a cold Tom Baker and Lalla Ward. It is reproduced here for your pleasure.



In Summary:
The visuals are good. The story is good. But not ever at the same time, and they sort of cancel each other out. If only their phases could have been locked with a divider circuit on the wafer wave inducer.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Power of Three

Chapter The 63rd, the last one done by that nice Chris Chibnall - whatever happened to him?

Plot: 
Amy and Rory are considering ending their travels with the Doctor, as their real life of work and friends is not getting a look in, they're getting older (though, to be fair, they don't look it), and regularly run out of milk and washing tablets. One day, all across the globe, millions of little black cubes appear everywhere, as if they've fallen from the sky. UNIT think it's an invasion of some kind, but the cubes don't do anything. The Doctor stays with his two friends to observe the cubes, but they still don't do anything; after four days, the domestic life drives the Doctor mad, and he goes back on his travels. Rory's Dad, Brian Williams, continues to monitor the cubes as the Doctor instructed, but everyone else forgets about them; people take them into their homes, use them as paperweights, construct tasks in The Apprentice around selling them (which is a bit stupid given they don't do anything and are in plentiful supply, but it wouldn't be the stupidest task they've ever had on The Apprentice).

Nearly a year on from when the cubes first appeared, the Doctor is making an effort to stay with the Ponds again after being guilt-tripped by Brian, and finally the cubes start doing stuff. After some experimentation, they give people heart attacks, as playing the Birdy Song at them failed to kill. The Doctor gets aboard the bad guys' spaceship via the hospital Rory works at, which is involved (somehow), and meets a hologram thespian who explains the plot to him: the bad guys are intergalactic pest exterminators who see human beings as an infestation, and the cubes are like slug pellets (except for all the myriad ways they're not like slug pellets). With his sonic screwdriver, the Doctor turns off the plot. Brian persuades Amy and Rory to continue to save the world, as that's what makes them happy.

Context:
Watched from the Series 7 Blu-ray box-set while snuggled up on the sofa with the Better Half one wet and windy evening in this so-called English Summer. It's close enough to a 'date movie' Doctor Who story what with the focus on a relationship, and the complete lack of any real jeopardy.

First-time round: 
On the evening of BBC1 broadcast, slightly timeshifted, in September 2012. No special memories of this one, but I do remember I was happy with the general direction of the series, and I enjoyed all the episodes in the short run that is series 7 part 1. Mind you, I'd felt the same, since it was broadcast, of the first half of Peter Capaldi's debut series, but when rewatching Into the Dalek for the blog recently, it wasn't quite as good as I thought. I hope this is a one-off, but tastes do change  (sometimes for the better). Luckily, the quality of The Power of Three was exactly as I remembered.

Reaction:
Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room: Russell T Davies. Chris Chibnall has produced one of those Doctor Who scripts that act as a love letter to another author's work, putting all that author's favourite tropes into a Doctor Who context. Somewhat surprisingly, in this instance he's channelling not Dickens or Agatha Christie but RTD's Doctor Who work, and this only a couple of years after the regime change. Consider the evidence: globe-spanning scenario represented by cut-in excerpts from fake or real news channel programmes, comic cameos from popular figures commenting on events, the invasion not being the main plot but just a backdrop to tell an emotional story about the regular characters, and swathes of online fandom having a problem with the ending. It's textbook Davies, and - given I'm keen on that kind of thing - it was rather marvellous to see it all again. I wonder what Moffat felt about it, though; he'd similarly paid homage to this story template in The Eleventh Hour, his first episode as showrunner, but things had moved on since then. And it does seem from everything I've read that this story was mostly Chibnall bringing ideas to Moffat, rather than Moffat supplying them. Will Chibnall's period in charge see a move back to this kind of story, or was it just a fun one-off experiment?

The ending is obviously flawed; the Doctor literally waves his sonic screwdriver and the machinations of the villains instantly cease. This was a major criticism of many stories produced by Russell T Davies as showrunner, but that was always overblown, and endings rarely happened so easily in any of his stories, certainly not as easily as it happens in The Power of Three. Was this a homage taken too far? Probably not; I remember from Andrew Pixley articles read at the time that there were issues with the narrative and a lot of material was moved around, shaped or lost in the edit. There was for example lots more material about what exactly the two mask-faced guys are up to at Rory's hospital, a thread left loose in the final product. Perhaps defeating the enemy as written was not so easy. Another reason why the ending doesn't work may be where The Power of Three becomes a victim of its own success. The cube plotline, which isn't really the point of proceedings, is really strong; much more so than anything in the RTD era. Davies didn't do much in the way of intrigue: game shows have gone sadistic in the future, there are ghosts walking the Earth, the planet's moved across space; what's the reason? Probably Daleks, isn't it? Or, if not, Cybermen. And that's okay. But the cube set-up is so intriguing and different, probably any explanation and solution offered was going to seem like a let down.

Certainly, the mystery of the cubes is more interesting than the penultimate outing for Amy and Rory, but it runs close. Up until Chibnall got a grip on the characters in 2012, I'd never believed too much in them as a couple. Darvill is excellent and has chemistry with (the excellent here, as he always is) Matt Smith; but, though it is seen as sacrilegious in some quarters to say it, Karen Gillan is limited as an actor, and never works with Smith as well as do Darvill, James Corden, Jenna Coleman or Caitlin Blackwood. But then Chibnall, ably supported by Moffat as commissioning showrunner, makes me care about them, by introducing a character that should arguably have been there from their day one: the person who misses them when they disappear off. Brian turns Rory from being a 2000-year old plastic Roman Centurion into being a son, and turns Amy from being The Girl Who Waited, to being a normal human being. Mark Williams helps things by being excellent, but it's all there on the page. It's not 100% successful, the couple are still slightly less charismatic than a bunch of matt-black cubes, but that only makes one frustrated that this wasn't all set up properly from the beginning.

Other points of note: Kate Stewart is a fantastic addition to the rich tapestry of Doctor Who and UNIT, the music is wonderful, and there are a few cracking gags in there as well as a magic quiet  scene between Gillan and Smith towards the end, possibly their best work together.

Connectivity: 
Both stories have no real monster, just a villain played by an eminent actor; both feature a three person TARDIS crew with one male and one female companion, and both see the Doctor playing a game.


Deeper Thoughts:
Enormous End. Faithful readers of the blog (hello mum!) will have noted me often joking in a blog post that Big Finish will or have covered this or that outrageously nerdy story idea. For those that don't know, Big Finish are a company that make audiobook dramas on CD and download; Doctor Who is their flagship range, but they do lots of others, both spin-offs connected to the wider world of Who (they've had ranges for Torchwood, Sarah Jane, Bernice Summerfield, UNIT, Gallifrey), and other cult telefantasy stuff (Blake's Seven, Terrahawks, Dark Shadows...). The phrase 'less is more' was tailor-made for Big Finish to ignore: they must have been more prodigious and comprehensive than any other Doctor Who merchandise, and that's a big thing in such a crowded market. If there was ever talk in Doctor Who's history that any group of guest characters could have had their own series - even if it was just an idle two-minute conversation in the BBC bar after recording - Big Finish have made it a reality; every corner of Who has been covered, new companions created to extend a Doctor's reign, each era's stars coaxed out of retirement, or recast if mortality prevents such coaxing, abandoned scripts or story ideas finally made, thousands of shiny discs.produced containing hundreds of stories.

I've listened to four of them. This is not because of indifference, but simply available time. I was tempted to spend some of that precious time on their output in the heady days of the early Noughties  when Big Finish persuaded Paul McGann to reprise his role of the Doctor, and it really seemed like this would be the only chance fans would have of a progressing new series of adventures. But, they were only okay, and I stopped after the first four story 'season'. It's odd to think that it was only a couple of years after that a new series of Doctor Who for real on the TV was announced, and any enthusiasm I had for audio-only new stories waned.


As the new series has been going on so long now, Big Finish have obtained the rights to cover elements from the latest twelve years, as well as the twenty-six and a bit before that.  They've started to release some mash-ups of old and new elements, and one I recently read about is almost tempting: new UNIT with old; Kate Stewart and Osgood teamed up with a New Tricks style posse of oldies: Yates, Benton and Jo. Almost tempting, but I'd need to find another 24 hours a day first. Maybe I'll wait until I retire, and then listen to the lot, but how many will have built up by then? I may have to admit it, even as a full-time obsessive, there are so so many more bits of Doctor Who that I could experience, had I but world enough and time, but probably I never will.
 
In Summary:
A victory lap for Amy and Rory, just when I finally didn't want them to leave.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Celestial Toymaker

Chapter The 62nd, which is slightly racist.

Plot: 
The TARDIS crew find themselves trapped in the realm of a mysterious and powerful being called the Toymaker. To win their freedom and avoid being turned into his toys, they must all go along with the Toymaker's games: the Doctor must play Space Towers of Hanoi for ages after having been turned invisible, while his companions Steven and Dodo have to endure a succession of sinister and twisted (but not that sinister and twisted) versions of childhood favourites like blind man's buff, hopscotch, and - erm - a food fight. This climaxes in a relatively simple stalemate, which nonetheless takes ages to explain: if the Doctor makes his final move and defeats the Toymaker, the realm they are in will vanish taking the TARDIS team with it, but they can't leave until he makes the move. Is this how their travels come to an end? Will they have to stay there forever in torment or - no, no, they've outwitted the Toymaker and scarpered. As you were.


Context:
The Celestial Toymaker is one of the Sixties Doctor Who stories that are sadly incomplete in the BBC archives. Three out of its four episodes are missing, but - thanks to the forethought of young fans back then with tape recorders - the soundtracks to all four exist. Another preservation method in those pre-VCR days, but more for trade than home use, was to get offscreen stills - or 'telesnaps' - taken by an outside contractor (a very specific one, as it seems only one fellow, John Cura, ever offered the service). If engaged, Cura would take a portfolio of shots, on average once every thirty seconds or so, of a TV programme. He was employed on Doctor Who early on, but the second producer of the show, John Wiles, decided Cura's  wares weren't worth the coin, so no offscreen photos exist for his era. The Celestial Toymaker was on the cusp; incoming producer Innes Lloyd is credited as producer, but it was commissioned by Wiles, and Lloyd reinstated telesnaps coverage from the very next story after it. With insufficient visual data, any slide-show reconstruction would have to be so inventive it would be distracting to watch. As such, I stuck with the 2001 CD release with narration by companion actor Peter Purves. After listening to it all the way through, I popped the remaining final episode in the DVD player (it's on the 'Lost in Time' odds and sods compilation box-set). No one from the family was interested in joining me for any part of this.

First-time round: 
In 1991, long before they ran out of complete stories to release on VHS, the Beeb (probably at the behest of 1980s Doctor Who supremo John Nathan-Turner who had a consultant role on the range at that time) put out some special releases to include the orphaned episodes and clips that otherwise would not find a home. These were the Years tapes, and appropriately one of the first releases in June 1991 was The Hartnell Years, covering the first Doctor. Inappropriately, it was presented by Slyvester McCoy and had a 'Latin' version of the Doctor Who theme by Keff McCulloch accompanying its titles. Urggh. It is truly one of most horrible things I've ever had in my ears (and I once had olive oil poured in to dislodge some compacted ear wax). Anyway, one of the three episodes on this tape was The Final Test, episode four of The Celestial Toymaker. It's a bit odd viewed out of context (Slyv was given literally seconds to summarise the plot of episodes 1 to 3 as a lead-in), but it does at least round off a story. It was ten years later in 2001 when the audio CD was released before I found out exactly how it fit together with the rest of the piece.  One mystery was explained: why the electrocuted body of the Cyril character that appears near the end was so inadequate. I thought in 1991 that it was rubbish as it looked just like a doll. Of course, now I realise that it is supposed to look just like a doll.

Reaction:
It was hard to find story connections between this one and the last story covered for the blog (Doctor Who and the Silurians - see below), but maybe they both have one similarity in their production: the money spent has struggled to find its way onto screen. Toymaker was undoubtedly budgeted cheaper than Silurians, but it still was aiming to create a highly visual fantasy world, with colourful childhood imagery of toys and games being the main driving force. The extant episode, though, looks empty and drab, like a contemporary children's game-show rather than a wonderland where godlike beings toy with mortals and all that carry on. It could just be episode 4 that's like that - unless they find the rest it's hard to know - maybe the money had run out by the end. The photos of the costumes and scenes from the earlier episodes do look great, but they are colour stills. In black and white, shot by bulky video cameras moving around Riverside Studio 1, it might not have been so impressive.

The story's a bit 'one note' throughout. Steven and Dodo get a riddle to solve, face some grotesque nursery characters as opponents in a game, these characters end up defeating themselves by dint of one stupidity or another, Steven and Dodo move on; riddle, repeat. No sense of building to a climax, nor much urgency despite the ticking clock of the move counter being referenced regularly. Having the same small repertory company of actors playing this succession of opponents only adds to the effect. There's also a lot of tell not show: lots of speeches about how powerful the Toymaker is, but no real evidence. The obvious sign of this power is demonstrated when toys turn into beings and back again, which mostly happens in those pesky missing episodes; maybe that sells it. The only similar effect in the available episode, mind, was mistaken by me for a decade as just being a rubbish dummy (see above), which doesn't inspire one with confidence that those moments in episodes 1-3 were spectacular and chilling. The ending too, is very talky. The predicament and its resolution are both neat bits of business, but it just takes too much time, and too much rabbit, to deliver.

Michael Gough is as good as you'd expect, playing arguably the first sci-fi supervillain in Doctor Who history; you could say Mavic Chen did it first a few stories earlier, but he's just a corrupt politician and doesn't have any powers per se; anyway, whoever we give the honour, the seeds were planted and the OTT protagonist took root henceforth. Another interesting innovation is that this story acts as a sequel to an unseen backstory adventure, where the Doctor has encountered and escaped the Toymaker before; this also would prove to a useful device in the series' future, being used often in the years to come. The story's themes chime with contemporary obsessions: its exploration of the dark corners of childhood, primary-coloured psychedelic grab bag of imagery, and Lewis Carroll-esque whimsical surrealism would all infuse 1960s pop media from Sergeant Pepper through to the White Album, so Doctor Who was ahead of the curve here in 1966.

Another less happy element that's 'of its time' is the unfortunate and unnecessary racism; the use of the 'Jeremy Clarkson' version of Eeny Meeny Miny Moe is perhaps not so bad (it's not very foregrounded, to the extent that the audio version uses a bit of narration to mask it, leaving the listener hard pressed to notice anything's gone); but, once you find out that 'celestial' can also mean oriental, the depiction of the Toymaker as a Chinese mandarin, with - it's hard to tell from the surviving visual material - maybe a touch of yellowing up and eyebrow work on the actor too, all makes it less forgivable. The jury's still out on whether any of this was deliberate, and it's somewhat overshadowed by Doctor Who's much more blatant transgressions in a later story where another white actor wears a similar get-up, is similarly described using the celestial double-meaning, but this time is unmistakably and outrageously made-up. And this was ten years later, when such things were even less socially accepted. But we'll get to that when we get to it.

Connectivity: 
They both have a featured character that holds the rank of sergeant... I think that's about it. They don't even have the TARDIS in common, as it didn't feature in Doctor Who and the Silurians, although The Celestial Toymaker contains about twenty TARDISes to make up for it.

Deeper Thoughts:
Odd? Balls. This is one of those early episodes about which an official reputation hardened sometime in the late seventies / early eighties. It was unassailable in those days as an experimental but excellent episode. It's probably objectively only average; certainly that's the more recent consensus - it came 197th out of 241 in the last major Doctor Who Magazine poll - but, it was clearly felt to be shockingly different in feel to all the episodes around it when it was first shown, which made it stand out to the young fans watching that would later become the taste-makers of early Doctor Who fandom. The regular fanzine of the Doctor Who appreciation Society was named Celestial Toyroom rather than, say, Small Prophet, Quick Return or The Sea Beggar. In the later production period of the aforementioned John Nathan-Turner, these stories that did something a bit weird or stylised came to have a categorisation of their own; they were known as 'oddball' stories. 

Putting aside the very un-Who and somewhat playground bully tactics of categorising those different from the perceived norm, betraying a lack of imagination regarding approaches the show should and shouldn't take, this is also rather forgetful about Doctor Who's origins. When first established, the parameters of the show were that the TARDIS could take our heroes forwards, backwards and sideways. The last of these three story types always proved more challenging than the other two. I've written recently about a long gestation of the very first 'sideways' idea they had, an adventure into the dimension of dimensions, when the TARDIS crew are miniaturised. This was mentioned in the series bible and planned for the first ever story, but eventually struggled onto screens at the start of the second season. Before that, they'd managed one bottle episode early on with psychodramas happening within the TARDIS; the next truly 'sideways' efforts were The Celestial Toymaker, and then The Mind Robber, several years later. So, they were rare, but they did happen, and were encoded into the show's DNA from the off. Additionally, a house style had never established itself in those days, and even if a particular story had a fairly straightforward plot, there was still scope to use a wild variety of different styles and tones in its realisation.

By the time of Turner's tenure, the backwards stories had fallen out of favour as well, of course, and the tone was something they were more restrictive about; but, Who is never about abiding by a formula, and - to give him his due - JNT did allow a few more 'oddballs' to slip in later on: The Happiness Patrol, Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and arguably all of Slyvester McCoy's first season. The spirit has continued in the new series, and there's still room for the odd experimental show like Extremis or Listen or Heaven Sent, and out and out oddballs like Amy's Choice, which - aside from a preposterous explanation tacked on the end - takes place completely in a domain of dreams, and  - aside from a slightly more satisfying explanation tacked on the end - has an adversary every bit as enigmatic as the Toymaker.


In Summary:
Talking of riddles: I can't remember for the life of me the other Doctor Who guest role Micheal Gough played. And it's doing my Hedin.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Doctor Who and the Silurians

Chapter The 61st, is strong, long and the title's very wrong.

Plot: 
The Third Doctor and Liz are summoned (forthwith) to join the Brigadier at a research centre based in Pat Troughton's Season 5 (futuristic but plausible science base overseen by rigid boss headed for a nervous breakdown, which has been infiltrated by monsters - Bingo!). These monsters are not invaders, though, they're from prehistoric Earth - an intelligent reptile species from a completely different period than the Silurian era. They went into cryo-sleep hundreds of millennia ago in nearby caves, to avoid an impending global catastrophe that never materialised. Some members of the hibernating group were woken up by the humans' activity, and they've been tapping the centre's power since in order to revive the rest. This has caused the mysterious power losses that the Brig and his men are investigating. The Doctor persuades the creature's leader to discuss a peaceful solution to share the Earth with the humans; but, before that can happen, the leader is deposed and killed by a young pretender, who then releases a plague to wipe out the human race. The Doctor and Liz find a cure, and the Brig (against the Doctor's wishes) blows up the caves and entombs the Silurians, or whatever they're called.

Context:
Watched across the course of approximately a week from the DVD, with the whole family. The Better Half dropped in and out, depending on mood, but all the children (boys of 11 and 7, girl of 5) stuck with it, and there was lots of (frankly, unexpected) chanting of their standard "Next ep, next ep" refrain when the end credits of each episode rolled. Indeed, the last three episodes - which cover the plague subplot and pretty much act as a discrete mini-adventure in their own right - were watched in one Sunday afternoon binge. The level of engagement from the kids was high. The youngest was amused through the early episodes, where the Silurian costume is teased with the odd glimpse here and there, exclaiming "When are we going to see the Monster Man!" at regular intervals, and later admonishing the onscreen Silurians with "You're never gonna get away with this!". Best of all, she joyously commentated on the scenes of the Doctor and Liz in the lab working on the antidote: with a nod she said "They're doing science", followed up with "I love watching them do science". Producer of this show Barry Letts, as I've said before and will say again, should have had more faith in his audience: he famously ditched Liz after one series as he thought it would be alienating to have the leads be two intelligent scientists. But we love watching them do science.

First-time round:
I'm trying to remember if I ever saw this story in black and white. Unlike the made-in-monochrome 60s, the 1970s era has all its episodes present in the BBC archives, many located and returned from abroad after the original master copies were wiped (as was the practice at the time). Not all the returned episodes were in colour, though; a lot of international broadcasters could not handle colour video or film, and they instead bought black and white film copies from the BBC; in many instances, including Doctor Who and the Silurians, that was the only broadcast-quality version that was ever found. In November 1992, some very clever Doctor Who fans - who moonlighted as TV technicians - invented a clever way to restore the colour to those episodes, by merging it in from inferior quality versions that had been taped from colour repeats on US TV. The first story to get this treatment was The Daemons, and it was followed up by Doctor Who and the Silurians the following year, restored using the same process.

Before then, only back and white copies were in circulation for certain stories. I'd seen a pirate tape of The Daemons by then, so knew what I'd been missing chroma-wise, but I think I'd only seen clips of Silurians at the most, so the first time I saw it in full was in colour in July 1993; I was back in Worthing during the long Summer vac from Uni, and I rushed back from town clutching the VHS double-pack purchased from Volume One, my favoured supplier in those days. The Daemons 'Redux' was deemed so miraculous it was granted a terrestrial repeat on BBC2; Doctor Who and the Silurians had to wait until December 1999 - when it had been further restored - for a similar honour. I remember catching one episode of that run in a hotel room of an evening, when I was being put up to do a course for my day job of the time.

This 1999 showing was the second story in an ill-fated run of repeats, intending to run through everything from Jon Pertwee's debut onwards; but it was a hiding to nothing - the following story, The Ambassadors of Death, had only been restored in patches, due to lack of available colour bits. There was no way the Beeb was going to show a partly or wholly black and white story in the 1990s, even on BBC2; so, the repeats fizzled out. Those clever fans didn't stop there, though. It was just the start of a 20+ year mission, for them and other clever people who joined them along the way, to bring back colour to all stories that had lost it, and now - by many different means - they have achieved this, closed up those grey gaps in the colourful Jon Pertwee era, and released them all on DVD. More evidence that Doctor Who has the most creative fans ever.

Reaction:
Let's get the title out of the way first: he's not called Doctor Who (I don't care what Steven Moffat may have recently said in an interview) and they're not called Silurians. The 'and' and the 'the' are the only bits that are approaching correct. Title aside, though, I rather like this one. I knew it was worthy, but this time I was surprised by how watchable it also is. Since the show had settled in to being the Doctor versus the Monsters, Good versus Evil, which developed as the theme during Hartnell's time and became set as the template with Patrick Troughton, Doctor Who hadn't done much in the way of moral ambiguity, and hadn't bothered to differentiate too much between the attitudes of individual members of the alien species it included. All that is brought back with a vengeance here.

It's also played straight, like all of season 7. The Brig is not written as an idiot, as he would later be, but as a professional that conflicts with the Doctor, but still retains an underlying warmth that neither man will perhaps admit is friendship, but is nonetheless. As an example, there's a tiny but wonderful moment where the Brigadier calls our hero "Doctor Watson", which is - it probably barely needs saying - expertly played by both actors, as every moment is here. The Doctor is affable though sometimes brusque, and doesn't edge into the off-putting peeved acting that he sometimes did in future series. Then, there's Caroline John as Liz Shaw, slightly softened from her debut appearance, but still nobody's fool. The Doctor gets to act paternally about her occasionally, but it doesn't cloy, as she gives as good as she gets, and both are written as adults if not quite equals. Every moment with the Three-Liz-Brig team is magic, and a year is not long enough in their company; it's very similar, in fact, to the triumvirate of regulars whose run has just ended too soon in 2017; we're left wanting more.

The plot is slick and intriguing. Writer Malcolm Hulke manages to sustain the mystery for over three episodes without the pace dragging at all; part of the reason for this is that the action is driven forward by character subplots. Fulton Mackay, who's in particularly fine form as the smarmy Dr. Quinn, lying through his smiling teeth all the time while hiding a deadly secret, is the engine of that beginning section. What is Quinn hiding? As the story enters another phase, the baton is passed to another flawed three-dimensional character, then another, and they're all excellently drawn and filled out: Baker, Masters, Lawrence; and then there's Captain Hawkins, played by a young Paul Darrow, the regular who alas never was. All men, though. Aside from Liz, the only significant female role is Thomasine Heiner as Miss Dawson, who does some subtle work expressing her unrequited love for Quinn, which after his death turns her into perhaps the most dangerous exponent of war with the Silurians. But she is wholly defined in relation to a male character, and once Quinn is gone, she's abruptly pushed off stage too. It's a shame, and not just for the obvious reason of equal representation. As every other guest cast member has been offed once their dramatic crisis point was reached, and the research centre is sparsely populated by the end, it might have been better to have Miss Dawson still operating the controls. Otherwise, it's just extras and people we know aren't going to die being put through the ultimate threat. It damages our emotional engagement at the climax.

If anything lets the side down in this story, it's the visuals. Some of this is probably as a result of the restoration work creating some unwanted artifacts but, even without that, the cave sets and the Silurian base are a bit tatty looking and lacking in detailing. The Cyclotron room, which is big and presumably had a bit of money spent on it, doesn't really look all that. The musical score too is disproportionately unimpressive to some compared to the investment. It's intellectually very satisfying that composer Carey Blyton arranged the music to underscore the Silurians' appearances using archaic instruments to indicate their prehistoric nature; but, if that means it sounds like the key motifs are being played on a kazoo, I can see how it would be unsettling to some people (me, I love it, but I'm a sucker for Carey Blyton's Doctor Who work). One last thought: did I miss it, or do they never fully explain the headaches and high levels of absenteeism that are uncovered as part of UNIT's investigation, which are highlighted as significant early on, but then forgotten about? Is it something the Silurians are doing, or something to do with the Cyclotron, or just a coincidence? We may never know.

Connectivity: 
Like Into The Dalek, this story features disagreements with soldiers, and negotiations with a friendlier individual member of a race while the rest of its kind are hostile.

Deeper Thoughts:
It's what you do with it that counts. At seven episodes duration, Doctor Who and the Silurians is the longest story yet tackled for the blog. One of the advantages that random jumping through the back catalogue has over watching in order is that the stories seem to be longer in the early years of Who, and it can feel like a slog. On closer examination, though, I find that may be something of a false impression: in the first twenty odd years of the series, the vast majority of stories are 4 or 6 parters, with a rare 2 or 3 parter here and there. A mere nine oversized outliers, three apiece for the first three Doctors, exist; Pertwee's three are all in his first year, so from 1971 onwards there is nothing longer than 6 episodes again (Trial of a Timelord, nominally a 14 episode epic, is being treated as four separate stories for the purposes of this blog, chiefly because it is not a 14 episode epic and is four separate stories, so there!). Specific circumstances dictated some of the nine's extra length: a couple of scripts fell through in Troughton's final year, so many stories, including his swansong The War Games, were stretched to fill the gaps, and a 12 episode Dalek story was deliberately commissioned for William Hartnell's era, as it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The remainder of the nine are all seven episodes long, like the Silurians story. Though it doesn't seem like much - only an episode more than the standard 6-parters - the addition of that one extra part does something significant to the structure, forcing the author to find more incident to sustain the running time. In this story, it necessitates the need for the plague subplot; my eldest picked up on this, and said he thought it might have been better to have two separate stories (lizard men, plague) rather than lump them together. That's the issue in a nutshell; seven eps is long, but not quite long enough to be special, and if it forces you to bring in strong subplots, why not just do two stories and give yourself the extra marketing potential of more 'opening nights'. Barry Letts took over the producer role for Doctor Who during Jon Pertwee's first season, and he inherited a season structure where there were three - three! - seven-episode stories in a row. This was dictated not by story but by cost (making the most out of the sets created for each new tale), but it was a straitjacket, and it was understandably changed as quickly as possible. More by luck than judgement they all turned out to be very strong stories, but I'd still recommend not often watching them back to back.

Even though they were never perhaps so long early on as one would think, the average length of a story has reduced as Doctor Who has endured. Nowadays, multi-episode stories and cliffhangers are mostly for special occasions, and the norm is a single 45 minute-long story, the rough equivalent of the old 2-parter. This can mean that new Who loses out on depth, but it makes up for that with sparing use of the longer tale (a story like Human Nature, for example, could not have been told effectively in one episode) and weaving in elements to tell a longer story arc over the course of a series. The quality of results have differed over the years, as one would expect them to; experimentation doesn't and shouldn't stop. In 2015, an attempt to do more longer stories ended up being a bit plodding, but this latest year was better for doing more one-offs.

In fact, the only slightly bum note for me of a generally successful 2017 run came in the final one of the sequence of three linked 'Monks' stories. I loved Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World, and I wanted to love The Lie of the Land. In the end, though, it suffered too much from inflated expectations in being the end of a trilogy. It would have been stronger if the aliens in control were completely new to the audience at the beginning of the episode, and it also wouldn't have felt so easy at the end when they were banished if we'd only seen them around for 45 minutes instead of three whole weeks. The earlier two shows would have had to have been rewritten, obviously, but they'd have withstood that. We'd also have had eleven precious stories to treasure from the Twelve-Bill-Nardole era, instead of what feels like only nine.

In Summary:
The Doctor and the Reptile Earthmen.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Into the Dalek

Chapter The 60th, where a new Doctor is still proving to be surprising.

Plot: 
The Doctor is suffering from a not previously mentioned or suspected crisis of conscience and hatred of soldiers, the sort of obsessions he has sometimes that only last for exactly one year. He arrives at Coal Hill School and drags Clara off into a Dalek/Human battle in some unspecified corner of Space-Time so they can both be miniaturised and injected into a rusty Dalek that has malfunctioned and is now good. The Doctor fixes the Dalek and it becomes bad again, and he seems unduly surprised by this fairly obvious turn of events. Outside, the Dalek calls in all its mates and everyone starts getting exterminated; on the inside, the Doctor and Clara try to make the Dalek good again, by reawakening its suppressed memories, and connecting its brain to the Doctor's. This works, but only because the Dalek is convinced by the Doctor's overwhelming hatred that all Daleks should be destroyed. In other news, a teacher called Danny Pink starts at Coal Hill, and agrees to go on a date with Clara. He'll likely last exactly a year too.

Context:
Watched on my own one evening on Blu-ray, then I watched it again the following night just to familiarise myself with the details, as it was one of those odd episodes that I hadn't rewatched very often, and it had maybe not touched the sides of my mind when it first went out. I don't know why this might be, it should have been a big one: first regular episode after the post-regeneration feature-length special the week before, big name director, and a new Doctor getting his first face-off with the Daleks.

First-time round:
So, why when I watched this on its first BBC1 broadcast in 2014 did it not make much of an impression on me? It's a different angle on a Dalek story. Trouble is, this different angle is utterly hackneyed. Shrinking the heroes had been done at least three times before in Doctor Who, as well as in countless other shows and films. The very first Doctor Who story was originally intended to be the same 'minscules' idea, and it eventually got made (as Planet of Giants) in the first recording block. 

Another reason might have been my mood at the time of watching, a little down at having to imminently go back to work after a couple of weeks of Summer leave. We'd had friends round and drinks for Deep Breath, then the family had spent some time away, in a Doctor Who themed holiday cottage no less, the Pet Shop Boys had cameoed in The Archers and all had been alright in the world; now it was time to get back to the everyday. I think Doctor Who itself was going through something similar. The 50th anniversary hoopla was still fresh in our minds, Capaldi's debut had been shown in cinemas across the globe, and had been preceded by the show's stars going on a world tour for flip's sake. This wasn't sustainable, and perhaps - just a little bit - everything from Into the Dalek onwards feels like the hangover after a big party.

Reaction:
As they do with US presidents in their second term, people often see the outgoing holder of the role, once a successor has been named, as something of a lame duck Doctor. This might be why lately there seem to be more and more rumblings of discontent in that arena of truth and fairness that is the internet about Capaldi's era as a whole. Unscientific analysis time: most people seem to be frustrated wanting more as they enjoyed his final year, but only enjoyed one out of his two years before that. Interestingly, these people seem to break evenly into two camps - one camp loved the stories of the abrasive short-haired Doctor of Capaldi's first series, but hated the offerings featuring the Sonic Sunglasses Kid the year after; the other camp, of course, vice versa. I am in the first camp; I loved the run from Deep Breath to Last Christmas, and was underwhelmed by 2015's stories (Heaven Sent excepted). Maybe the stories were better in 2014 (they were certainly shorter); but, it could be more because of people's expectations of how much darkness they want from the lead. I have a lot of tolerance for a Doctor that can be caustic, particularly if he has a companion to act as his conscience (or - as it's put, in Into The Dalek's best line, "[She's] my carer, she cares so I don't have to.")

That's not to say the darkness of series 8 doesn't sometimes overstep the mark. When the blog gets to it, there's scope for reams of arguments back and forth as to whether Dark Water / Death In Heaven is an unflinching look at mortality or a ghoulishly insensitive mess; but nothing in 2014 to my mind comes close to being as wrong as, say, Sleep No More from 2015. Into the Dalek edges toward that mark with the Doctor's callousness around Ross's death, giving him - and the audience - false hope; but he does that to save everyone else, so you sort of forgive him, until they find themselves in the Dalek's internal equivalent of a charnel house, and the Doctor explains that Ross is also here, liquefied, as the "top layer, if you want to say a few words".

The Doctor is being painted in a negative light both in the Ross section, and at the end where the resolution is dependent on his levels of internal hate. This would make more story sense if he weren't already questioning himself at the beginning of the story, before any of this has happened. It's a very odd structural mistake: Doctor has crisis of conscience before he goes on punishing adventure that highlights his flaws? All it needs is to swap the "Be a pal, am I a good man?" bit to the end, and it makes everything so much better.  Otherwise, it makes his soul-searching seem so hollow when he's being cold about characters' deaths and prejudiced about the possibility of Rusty's redemption. It's not the only flaw too: the characters are a bit nothingy, and the narrative steers too close to quite a few previous adventures of the soldiers of Skaro, particularly 2005's Dalek. It is brave, perhaps, to be pretty much quoting the "You would make a good Dalek" line from that earlier show here, in a not nearly as well told tale.

In the positive column, the visuals are very good (creating tiny worlds blown up large always seems to bring the best out of any designer), and the piece is directed with the quality you'd expect of feature film man Ben Wheatley. The music is excellent too, and the fun scenes between Clara and Danny zip along with considerable verve. By grounding her character, it finally provides Jenna Coleman decent material with which to work: there's really nothing in her stories from the previous year and a bit that's as good as those Coal Hill scenes. Also, there's the refreshing air of promise one gets from the beginning of these story arcs. 'Will time-travelling get in the way of Clara and Danny falling in love?' is so much more immediate and interesting a dramatic question than 'What's the secret of the impossible girl?'. And - as clumsily as it's handled - the Doctor's quest for a sense of self has more meaning than cracks in walls, or astronaut suits, or any other timey-wimey nonsense. 

Connectivity: 
Grumpy Doctor - check. Callous quips after someone gets killed - check. The Doctor and female companion teamed up with three local rebel characters, rapidly reduced to two, who make their way through an enclosed environment full of dangers, while other characters watch their progress on screens - check...

Deeper Thoughts:
Tales of the Expected. Doctor Who fans - not Whovians, never Whovians - have to brave some hostile territory occasionally. On Sunday 16th July 2017, my people - my poor suffering people - had to watch the post Wimbledon Men's Singles final commentators blather on for, like, minutes before BBC1 showed us who the new Doctor was, and excitingly it was... the person whose odds had narrowed in the couple of days before the announcement, and whose name therefore had been all over the corners of the internet where nerds congregate. It's not really a spoiler if you're tipped off by an accumulation of strong indicators rather than a deliberate confirmation from someone in the know, but it still feels just like a spoiler. You may be thinking to yourself that if I'd wanted the full surprise I should have stayed clear of any forums or feeds; but, it was only through the forums and feeds that I knew there was going to be an announcement in the first place; I'd never have been watching post-match analysis of tennis for pleasure. Anyway, I'd still have been speculation-spoilered by the front page of a national newspaper peeking out at me on Sunday while I queued for groceries (is there any mileage, do you think, in legislation to force English tabloids to be in plain wrapping, like cigarettes, so I don't need to see their ghastly bile and hypocrisy?)

It was the same for Peter Capaldi's announcement; I knew the right name a day before it was official, from internet gossip and reports of bets being placed; in 2013, it was a shiny floor BBC1 entertainment show to wade through rather than sport, but it didn't make it much better. The bad thing this time was that it deflated what should have been a magical moment. My reaction was 'oh it is Jodie Whittaker' instead of 'OMG it's Jodie Whittaker'. Instead, my excitement gradually built through that Sunday afternoon and evening at this excellent bit of casting. Firstly, obviously, they have cast a woman to play the Doctor. I predicted this, of course (see the Deeper Thoughts section of The Crimson Horror post for full details, fact fans). It was an idea whose time had come, oooh, at least two regenerations ago, probably earlier, so it is no surprise it's happening now, but that shouldn't take anything away from how marvellous it is. My post in February this year was a little pessimistic, worrying that the writing would get too bogged down in the biological details of this change; I hope I'm wrong. The Doctor's the hero and should just get on with saving the universe, there's no need to dwell on the chromosome that's disappeared, or Y.

It's a great actor that's been cast. I realise, if imdb.com is correct, that I've followed her since her very first on screen role, a memorable turn in an Alan Plater TV play in 2006 ("The Last Will and Testament of Billy Two-Sheds") and she's been in loads of great stuff since. I've never seen her play anything remotely like the Doctor, but - hell - that's part of why this is such a revolutionary move: women don't get to play characters like the Doctor enough, but she will hopefully change all that. It was at first disconcerting, but gradually more and more intriguing, not to have the slightest inkling of how an actor is going to approach the role. The closest analogue I can think of is when Christopher Eccleston was cast, not because of Northern accents, or that they've worked together in the past: this is an actor known for grounded performances within mainly realist settings, but now being thrillingly asked for something more, something new. But Eccleston had done The Second Coming, at least, Whittaker's take on far out science-fantasy is a completely unknown quantity. So, the lack of surprise I felt at the announcement is more than compensated for. It will be sad to say goodbye to Capaldi, but I can't wait for Christmas, or the New Year.

Finally, one other point to note, one I'm not proud of or anything but it happens to be the truth, and I may as well get it off my chest now, as I'm sure I'm not alone: I love Jodie Whittaker. I love her. I luurvve her. A massive teenage-boy crush. I will have to learn to reconcile these strange stirrings I'm feeling suddenly for my sexless childhood hero. The Better Half can hopefully help me get through it; after all, she just about navigated a similar reaction on her part during the David Tennant years. Just about. Get behind me, unworthy feelings - I need to be better that that, I need a role model. Luckily, I have one, and she's called the Doctor.

In Summary:
Into the Dalek, betrothed and divine... Ahoy! Ahoy! Land, sea and sky, Ahoy! Ahoy! Boy, man and soldier...