Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The Smugglers

Chapter The 87th, with a yo-ho-ho and, if I might be so bold, a veritable bottle of rum into the bargain.

Plot: 
The Doctor and his new travelling companions Ben and Polly materialise in a Cornish coastal village in the 17th Century and get mixed up with a local smuggling operation, and a recently arrived bunch of pirates trying to track down their old captain's treasure. Because of his grey hair or venerable cloak or ability to work a TV camera close-up like an absolute boy or something, the Doctor is unfeasibly trusted by the local churchwarden, an ex-pirate, with a riddle that leads to the treasure's hiding place in the church's crypt. (Although the churchwarden gets the riddle a bit wrong when he whispers it, the Doctor's mild telepathic ability works out what he meant to say.) Anyway, after some capture, escape, threatening, bluff and whatnot, the TARDIS team delay all the bad guys in the crypt long enough that an armed band of revenue men can arrive and kill and / or arrest everybody.

Context:
Nobody's been willing to watch Doctor Who with me for what seems like ages, and the randomiser goes and picks The bloody Smugglers (working title), a non-descript filler story from the black-and-white era with no surviving video, which would need to be experienced either as slide show or talking book. A crowd-pleaser it is not. Surprisingly, though, I did find a willing viewing mate, the Better Half, who watched it with me during one week, an episode per night, on a laptop in bed. We viewed the Loose Cannon reconstruction, a fan made non-profit creation which matches the surviving audio with the surviving off-screen stills and the odd clip. As ever with a recon, video sharing sites are quirky as to whether they store every episode of these, and sometimes some surfing around different sites is required to reach the end. As it is one of those overlooked stories, it was a pretty fresh watch for both of us. It was during a pretty busy time here, and I'd got behind on my blogging:  I hadn't got round to writing up the last blog post for Gridlock until a week after I watched The Smugglers. So, I had another listen on my own to the official BBC audio-only version with narration to remind myself of the plot - such as it is! - before I wrote about it here.

First-time round:
As the season opener for Doctor Who's fourth year, The Smugglers is rather low-key. It feels harsh to call it forgettable, but I have literally forgotten it - I have no memory of first experiencing the story. It could have been reading the novelisation in the late 1980s, but my gut tells me I didn't get the book back then, and obtained a copy later (and maybe haven't ever read it - sorry, I feel like I've let the fan collective down!). So, my introduction to the story must have been around 2002 when the audio CD came out. Again, though, there's nothing that sticks in the mind about it, and before my recent viewing I'd have been hard pressed to recall any details. The major abiding memory of it is in fact not really from the story at all; it's a publicity photo of George A. Cooper as the pirate Cherub threatening William Hartnell's Doctor. It's a striking image - the blade looks like it's pricking Hartnell's skin - and caught my imagination when I first saw it in a Doctor Who Magazine in the early 1980s.

Reaction:
Why, I wonder, isn't this story called The Pirates? There was a long period before the Pirates of the Caribbean films were successful when pirate movies were considered too much of a box office risk, but that was mainly because of the disastrous production and performance of the film Cutthroat Island in the mid-90s, so that attitude certainly didn't extend back to the 60s when The Smugglers was shown. The story is a faithful mash-up of two literary influences, or film adaptations thereof: Treasure Island (breakaway pirate with location of treasure is tracked down to a coastal spot by old crew and killed) and Jamaica Inn (chubby local authority figure is secretly behind a smuggling operation, with an armed posse turning up at the denouement to stop it), plus a pinch of Peter Pan too (Captain Pike). You'd have thought that the dry land larceny was slightly less exciting that the ocean-bound kind when it came time to choosing a title. Although, the pirate ship featured never sets sail, I suppose.

That might be an apt summary of the piece in general: it's a becalmed ship, not going anywhere. Neither the smuggling nor pirate treasure plot build up to much more than a squabble about a cryptic crossword clue in a crypt. Or maybe that's not fair: all of the story's swashes and buckles are reduced to noises off, with or without a blurry fixed frame image; the action sequences might be great, for all I know. Maybe all the story's imagery is as good as that publicity shot of Cherub threatening the Doctor. The few remaining clips back this up, but as they only exist because Australian censors snipped them out of the film copies, and they therefore comprise lots of vicious stabbings, it's not surprising that they're quite striking. Unless the episodes themselves are ever found, we'll never know for sure.

This is the first of Ben and Polly's regular adventures after their introduction in the preceding story The War Machines, but it isn't much of a showcase for them. The best sequence is their playing on the superstitions of their gaoler to escape, which is a cute bit. Alas, the rest of the stuff they get to do is a bit meh. They've both only just joined as the bright new hopes and they already find themselves in a stopgap story. Worse still, over the course of the next couple of stories everything is going to change fundamentally with a new actor taking on the lead role, and it won't be long before they're sidelined; in some ways, theirs feels like the shortest era ever.

The performances are in keeping with the overall feel of things, which is to say they are large. It's not just because of Captain Pike's similarities to Captain Hook that this feels like a panto. It even has a principal boy: Anneke Wills' Polly is assumed to be male throughout because she's wearing trousers. Now, it's difficult to avoid veering into sexism discussing this, but this is a character played by Anneke Wills in the Sixties, lest we forget: she is so demonstrably a blonde bombshell that I defy any randy pirate or innkeeper to remain under the illusion she's a boy for more than about one minute. This time, the lack of moving images probably helps sell that particular element of the plot.

Connectivity: 
Both The Smugglers and Gridlock contain references to pirates, and a character soon to die telling the Doctor a gnomic riddle that will only be explained after a few more episodes have passed.

Deeper Thoughts:
The Making of Acorn Antiques. In a long ago Christmas special of Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, one segment is a spoof documentary on the making of the wonky fictional soap Acorn Antiques that featured weekly on Wood's show. I was well read about the making of TV from Doctor Who Magazines and elsewhere by the time I first saw this sketch in the late 1980s, and so lots of it resonated, and stayed in my memory long after. The panicked vision mixer's "coming to 2, no 3, no it was 2... now coming to 3", for instance, encapsulates the stressful nature of working in a multi-camera production. Later in the sketch, the fearsome (and fictional) executive producer of Acorn Antiques, Marion Clune, grips the mixing desk as her star enters the scene without the tea tray that's mentioned in dialogue. But they don't break recording; instead, Mrs. Overall just mimes holding the invisible tray, as the rest of the cast discuss how nice it looks. "We professionals notice," says Marion (played with brio by Maggie Steed) in the gallery, "Joe Public never clocks a damn thing."

Of course, the people who made Doctor Who would never display so unprofessional an attitude. But, such were the pressures of making Doctor Who to a tight budget with only so much studio time, that often mistakes and fluffs did get left in as they moved on to the next scene. This is particularly true of the 1960s stories; editing of the time involved cutting and taping the physical video tape - any more than about five splices, and it would fall apart. So, often it was just like the actors were doing it live, they had to keep going no matter what. The Smugglers has a particularly stand-out example, as the actor playing Longfoot gets the riddle - the exact wording of which is going to be crucial to the ending of the piece - wrong in the first episode. By an amusing coincidence, the director that made the ultimate decision to leave that mistake in was Julia Smith, who the character of Marion Clune was based on (in her role as exec producer on Eastenders, and in particular her appearance in a real Eastenders doco, Just Another Day, several scenes of which The Making of Acorn Antiques riffs upon).

Who was going to remember a line from two or three weeks earlier? It's not like anyone could record the stories in the 1960s to experience them again, yes? Except, of course, it subsequently came to light that people were indeed recording Doctor Who in the 1960s. Not on video, of course, as that technology was too expensive for home use back then, but on audio tape. Just as the restrictions of making television in those days nurtured the creativity of individuals like Julia Smith, helping them to move on to bigger and better things, so the restrictions faced by the Doctor Who enthusiast in preserving television inspired a level of technical ingenuity in this small group of dedicated fans. It's because of them, and them alone, that we still have all the audio of every Doctor Who story.

The best recordings are those made by fan Graham Strong, when he'd given up on using a microphone, and wired the TV's audio output direct into his reel to reel machine. His recordings are so good, that they're better quality than some of the soundtracks on the surviving film copies, and have therefore been used as the sound masters for DVDs. I was very sad to read over the weekend that Graham had recently passed away at the age of 69 years of age. One of the nicest moments at the BFI event unveiling of The Power of the Daleks DVD a couple of years back was when Graham, sat in the audience, was encouraged from the stage to take a bow. I'm glad he knew how much fun and joy his and other's home taping had brought to so many Doctor Who fans, allowing them to enjoy audio CDs, animated versions, and reconstructions that otherwise couldn't exist. So, for The Smugglers, I have to give thanks to the pirates.

In Summary:
Never sets sail.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Gridlock


Chapter The 86th, which oo-ooh sends me, takes me to the rush hour.

Plot: 
The Doctor and Martha visit New New York in the year 5billion-and-a-bit. Since he was last here with Rose, everyone but those living in the undercity ghettos have died from a virus. The remaining residents have been unaware of this - or at least fiercely in denial of it - for decades, assuming that the government is still around because of some automated systems, and have taken to the motorway in their flying vehicles to escape to a better life. Traffic is so bad that cars take years to travel even one mile, and so the motorists are all unaware or at least fiercely denying that they're going round in circles and will never get to anywhere.

Meanwhile, the cars' choking collective exhaust fumes are feeding savage Macra creatures in the fast lane way down the bottom of the multi-level 'road' system, and they like to destroy any cars that come down that far. The Doctor and Martha get separated and stuck in this system, but the Doctor is transported out by cat nun Novice Hame, and manages to open the motorway roof so all the vehicles can fly up and out, and everyone can repopulate the city. The Face of Boe - who has been keeping things running using his life force - dies, but not before telling the Doctor cryptically that he might not be the last of the Time Lords after all.

Context:
I was feeling knackered in the middle day of the - very sunny - May Day Holiday weekend. Usual pattern for such weekends is as follows: Saturday, go out somewhere, full of enthusiasm; Sunday, stay in watching TV hiding from the sun and other people; Monday, do some gardening, full of rue. This one proved no different. For the middle day, I usually plump for a comfort food watch, an Inspector Morse or Hickson Marple perhaps, or a film like The Princess Bride, but sometimes a Who is what the Doctor ordered. Gridlock probably wouldn't be my automatic choice - the random number generator I use to pick which story to watch next is a useful device, but lacks true discrimination - but it was pleasant enough way to spend 45 minutes. Yet again, though, I couldn't interest anyone in the family to join me as I viewed from my DVD copy.

First-time round:
When Gridlock was first broadcast in April 2007, it followed an FA Cup semi-final on BBC1; if the match had gone to extra time, then Doctor Who would have been postponed to the following Saturday. I remember feeling a small amount of worry that this would come to pass, and relief when it didn't. This demonstrates that I was still watching live, and still very much engaged with every individual show at that point. Our first child (boy, who at the time was still under 1 years old) can't have required putting to bed during the Doctor Who slot as he would the following year; it was in that following year that time-shifting became the default for us, and around this time too that the BBC iplayer launched, and BBC3 was repeating modern Who episodes in heavy rotation. So, the new series 3, Tennant's second year, including Gridlock, was our (and possibly many other people's) last point of regularly watching live as it went out.

Reaction:
Let's get it out of the way at the start: Gridlock doesn't have lots of plot holes, it is one big plot hole. It's really hard to reconcile how - except at the allegorical level at which the story operates - any of the character's behaviour makes sense. How can anyone believe there is still a functioning society in place outside the motorway? If the cars can communicate with each other why not the outside world? If so, why can't the Face of Boe or Novice Hame get a message to the trapped motorway dwellers? Or, even better, open the doors so they can fly out? It shouldn't need them to wait for the Doctor to arrive to sort it all out - what if he'd never come back to New Earth? None of this spoils the story, though, as the production integrates so well - in plot, performance and all aspects of design - to achieve the story's central visual metaphor: we're all trapped in our little boxes, going round in circles, in denial about whether or not there's anything beyond.

The comparable story from later would be Heaven Sent (and Eric Saward's abandoned script for the final episode of The Trial of a Time Lord bears some similarities too); maybe something about the stressful idea-consuming week-in week-out grind of writing Doctor Who inspired these repetitive circular narratives. In Heaven Sent, the circumambulation is a single-occupancy hell escaped only by the unstinting perseverance of the heroic individual, whereas Gridlock is a comment on the society stuck in the system. The motorway residents are joined together across differences - race, class, sexuality - through hope. Yes, it may be a delusional hope, but it's a hope nonetheless. The scene where everyone in the cars stops and sings The Old Rugged Cross, was justly praised at the time, and is still electrifying to watch. It silences the Doctor in his full blown self-righteous rant, trying to wake people up to their situation, but it's not really a pro-religion moment, more a humanist one. This is why it was crucial to have an actor like Ardal o' Hanlon who personifies warmth and friendliness, even under wads of fur and latex.

The consolations of denial are not lost on the Doctor either - there's a fine parallel drawn with his actions in the scenes with Martha bookending the piece: he too lies to his companion (and maybe himself) just so he can wish away an awful truth, the destruction of his planet and people in the Time War. In both scenes, and throughout, Tennant is excellent, bedded in nicely now after his less certain first year. The sequence of him breaking out of the side-to-side tyranny and traversing downward through different cars (accompanied by some great Murray Gold music) is Doctor Who as Ferris Bueller, anarchically making a short cut by jumping over garden fences. This sequence also allowed cheap and efficient world building - a redress of  the single car interior set, and a different set of cast members each time, giving brief intriguing glimpses into the corners of this odd place. Writer Russell T Davies finds a new text for Doctor Who, a voracious consumer of influences over the years, to rip off: the Future Shocks of UK comic 2000AD. It's definitely an interesting new texture. The Macra fit nicely into that world too, and it was a fun gag to bring them back.

It's a shame that this was the final part of a loosely linked trilogy of stories, as it would have been nice to revisit this world again; but, less is more. The show was getting better at using loose sequels and trilogies, plus running dramatic elements, to improve the season arcs and move away from the "Where's Waldo / Wally?" style of the first two years with mentions of "Bad Wolf" and "Torchwood" smuggled in. This third year culminated a lot of hints and plot elements in its 3-part finale, where the meaning of the Face of Boe's dying words was explained.

Connectivity: 
Both contain a talking appendage in a jar disconnected from any corresponding body, and in both stories this appendage falls out of its jar and onto the floor. The cat nuns were a sort of sisterhood too, although there's only one still around by the time of Gridlock.

Deeper Thoughts:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of thingummy doodah. A recent nerdy conversation I had (actually it was in January, where has the year gone?) discussed the inconsistency of Doctor Who episodes, and other genre fare. It's rare to find a season of anything without a few episodes one thinks of as duffers. With Who, it's almost part of its DNA: it started - and has mostly remained - as an ongoing series of stories in wildly different locales with cliffhangers leading from one to the next. Is there enough similarity in its overarching themes and characters that someone could like equally a tale of witches in Shakespearean England and a sci-fi allegory about people stuck on a floating motorway? Maybe, but what about the week after that? And the week after that? Sooner or later it seems likely it'll come a cropper. This is a curse of episodic genre television: variety brings with it risk, but the heightened aspects of the genre demand variety to an extent which a soap, say, doesn't have to face.

My exhibit for the prosecution, though, was Endeavour, the latest and current series within ITV's Inspector Morse franchise. It's a big favourite in our house, and I don't think there has been a single story in its five seasons to date that hasn't reached a high level of quality. You could argue that it doesn't face the same level of pressure to be varied that Doctor Who does, but I'm not so sure. It's at heart an adventure story with an intelligent non-violent protagonist, it's a period piece within a somewhat heightened version of reality, and it makes an effort to showcase a new locale each week; the latest series shown earlier this year featured, amongst others, stories set in a boy's public school, behind the scenes on a horror film, a railway station in the middle of nowhere, and an army base - any one of these could have been the setting for a Doctor Who, and some already have. The two key differences, though, are that Endeavour's seasons comprise a smaller number of feature-length stories, and they're all written by the same person, Russell Lewis.

From the early reports in 2003 and 2004, this is roughly the same structure I was expecting for the new Doctor Who. It was mentioned at points that the number of episodes hadn't been decided yet, and there was an impression given that a Russell (T Davies, in this instance) would be writing them all. I didn't expect feature length stories, but I thought there would be maximum 8 episodes, maximum an hour in length, so around the same commitment in minutes per year as the usual batch of episodes of Endeavour, or Lewis before it. The added value - 13 episodes and a Christmas special! - that we got from new Who was a nice surprise. For its latest season, though, Endeavour did 6 films, rather than its usual 4, of roughly 90 minutes each in length with the ad breaks removed. That's as close as dammit to the twelve 45-minuters in Peter Capaldi's last season. And - though it pains me to say it - Endeavour's run was significantly better.

Coincidentally, it was Endeavour's antecedent, the TV adaptation of Inspector Morse, that brought in the format in the first place; no pissing about with cramming a detective mystery into 50-minutes (like the roughly contemporaneous Poirot adaptations) nor of having multi-episode stories with cliffhangers (like the roughly contemporaneous Miss Marple adaptations), Morse from its debut in 1987, decided that each story was going to be a self-contained and feature-length film. Eventually, Poirot and Marple would follow its lead, as well as pretty much every other detective series and a large majority of dramas. If Doctor Who had still been going into the early 1990s, I don't think it would have remained as a multi-camera episodic show, it would have been done on film as 90-minuters with no cliffhangers (for its only outing during that decade, that was indeed its shape). Despite the small-batch approach, Inspector Morse was wildly inconsistent, both in tone and quality, particularly early on. But that was because it was still written and directed by different people each week, who were given a larger amount of freedom than now. Nowadays, protecting a brand is of higher value than giving talent (including quite a few newbies who worked on Morse) room to play.

Perhaps because of the success of Doctor Who since 2005, the Morse format has become less ubiquitous, and cliffhangers have had a bit of a renaissance. For example: in its later series, Morse sequel Lewis starting doing stories in two parts, separated by a week. It looked less like an artistic decision than a scheduling one, mind, and - particularly the first year they did it - the evidence pointed to them being made as feature-length, then chopped up. But, could it be done now? Could you restructure a Doctor Who season as a series of feature-length films? There's no reason why you'd need to jettison cliffhangers or overarching plots - Endeavour still retains vestiges of these - and it might help to keep things more consistent from story to story. But, you would lose something of the variety of locales, and a few people would get very upset that Doctor Who was on for fewer weeks of the year. That's happening a bit, anyway, though: Mister Chibnall's first year is going to be 10 episodes, but they're all going to be a bit longer than previously. Let's see how it goes when we get to Autumn. Exciting! (Why is this year taking so long?!) 



In Summary:
More fun, and more thought-provoking, than being stuck in traffic.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Brain of Morbius


Chapter The 85th, which outlines how to get ahead in transplant surgery.

Plot: 
The Doctor and Sarah-Jane are forced by Gallifreyan remote control to land on the planet Karn, home of a fountain of eternal youth guarded by a youth dance troupe / sisterhood. These sisters have an uneasy truce with the Time Lords: in exchange for providing some of their elixir in cases where regenerations have failed, they're left to destroy all ships that come anywhere near Karn and keep themselves protected and alone. Alone, that is, bar smooth-talking surgeon, Mehendri Solon, who's been allowed to stay and build a patchwork body from bits of crash victims. Years earlier, Karn was the site of a battle with Time Lord renegade Morbius and his followers; Solon extracted Morbius's brain just before the defeated renegade was executed, and has been keeping it in a jar. He wants to use the Doctor's head to house it. But the Doctor manages to persuade the sisterhood he's on their side, brutally murders Solon, and then engages in a mind battle with Morbius (who's now got a fishbowl for a head). It ends in something of a draw; the Doctor has to be brought back from death with some elixir and Morbius staggers around confused until the sisterhood harry him off a cliff with flaming torches.

Context:
Still no one in the family is much interested in watching Who. Over a few days, I watched the DVD, an episode a time, mostly on my own, but with family members drifting in and out, mostly out. The Better Half watched the ending and sought an explanation from me as to how, when the leader of the Sisterhood Maran sacrifices herself at the end, she manages to get into the flame chamber, even though it's not big enough to rejuvenate a cat. I spluttered and filibustered, but there wasn't any answer: it's a sub-genre of impressionistic special effects on Who where they are trying to achieve something mundanely impossible, rather than fantastically impossible, and still don't achieve it successfully.

First-time round:
The initial Brain of Morbius VHS release in 1984, the second ever story released in the range, was notoriously butchered. In those very early days, the videos all presented the stories edited together as one feature-length piece, presumably as someone somewhere believed no punter would want to watch repetitive credit sequences every twenty-five minutes. It wasn't a policy limited to Who either: my first bought tape of The Young Ones had three non-contiguous episodes, with no plot running between them, but the Beeb still felt the need to remove the roller captions bits and stitch what remained clumsily together (even if that meant removing some gags). What made it worse for Brain of Morbius , though, was that someone somewhere decided to put out a version with 30 minutes of story ripped out as well as the credits. Luckily, this was before I started buying the videos, so I never came across this troublesome version, but it was not popular with anyone; paradoxically, it's something of a collector's item now if you can get a copy.

Like all those early edited stories, Morbius was released a few years later with the episodic structure reinstated. By this time I was not only buying the tapes, but eagerly awaiting each release, and snapping it up as soon as I could find it. Morbius was supposed to come out on the same day as the similarly reissued The Five Doctors, but I could only find the latter in my local W. H. Smiths in Worthing. Many days passed, and I remember the slight embarrassment of ringing up to check whether it had come in, and having to say the words "The Brain of Morbius" to an adult non-fan, then repeat them, and then spell out 'Morbius' for good measure.

Reaction:
A few of the Doctor Who stories from this period take inspiration from classic horror texts, primarily their Universal movie versions. Usually, though, this is merely to seed an idea that grows out in a completely different direction. Pyramids of Mars for example, a couple of stories earlier than the Morbius tale, shares no story beats with any Mummy movie ever made, it just scavenges some elements of look and feel. The Brain of Morbius, however, is a pretty full-on retread - crazy, driven scientist reanimates stitched-together body from bits of dead people, the resultant creature finds it hard to communicate, runs amok and is pursued by a torch-wielding mob.

This is one of the reasons why its author (Terrance Dicks) was so frustrated with the heavily rewritten final product. He originally planned a little extra twist - the scientist would be replaced with a robot, following the only logical path open to it to re-body its master. The production couldn't ultimately afford to do a robot convincingly, script editor Robert Holmes did a hasty rewrite, and Terrance had his name taken off the thing. Robert Holmes garnered grudging amusement from Dicks, after being asked to slap on "some bland pseudonym", by taking that literally: The Brain if Morbius was credited to a Robin Bland. Dicks didn't like that the changes made the piece completely unoriginal, and stopped it making sense: why would a human make the insensitive mistake of imagining anyone would want to be transplanted into Frankenstein's monster? But a robot's cold logic could probably have worked that out too, and the lack of originality doesn't matter : it's so screamingly obvious that it's a pastiche, that a viewer just goes with it as a simple bit of fun.

Beyond the big James Whale inspired main course, Morbius offers up on the side a veritable smorgasbord of other horror-fantasy cliches, taking things from everywhere: secret cults to bring back evil dictators, all-female psy covens, brains in jars - it almost achieves some originality from the sheer accumulation of different hoary old tropes. There's only a few characters, but they're well drawn and well played (Philip Madoc as Solon is rightly held as one of the most memorable villains in classic Who). There's some delicious black comic dialogue in keeping with the heightened nature of the tone, and it trots along at a reasonable pace to a satisfactory if slightly questionable conclusion: what did the Doctor expect to happen when he attempted to gas Solon and Morbius to death, that the Sisterhood would come and let him out eventually? What's going on exactly in the mind-bending contest - does the Doctor lose, or win at the cost of his own life?

A much bigger problem with the story than its script, is how tatty everything looks. The sets, models, costumes, props - all of it is looking a bit threadbare; the production is regularly lauded as being rich and lush, and I just couldn't see any of that on screen.

Connectivity: 
Both The Brain of Morbius and Listen contain at least one futuristic craft grounded on a rocky planet, and in both stories the Doctor's companion is offered a drink at table, but doesn't end up having it (Danny and Clara miss out on water as they're too busy arguing; Sarah-Jane pours her wine surreptitiously away).

Deeper Thoughts:
Time, time, time team, what has become of me. I started this blog to avoid having a mid-life crisis. Doctor Who, an obsession I've had since I was nine years old, a subject I know far too much about in ridiculous detail, something I've never grown out of despite several obvious opportunities to do so (the nigh-on 16 years it wasn't on TV, for example) would never be a topic that would cease to be relevant to me. And watching and blogging every single episode, new and old series, would keep me busy for years, preventing me from having to start driving a sports car or forming a band, or wearing Lycra. Would I cease to be relevant to it, though? No, this too was impossible: I couldn't cease to be relevant to Doctor Who as I'd never been relevant to it in the first place. This has not stopped me banging on in blog posts for three years now, harmless old fart that I am. But, but, but...

In the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, the new time team has been revealed. For the uninitiated, there has been a team of four people featured regularly since 1999 watching and then commenting on Doctor Who stories one by one. The magazine has once previously traded in the time team for a younger set of four. This new third set are a dozen people, they're all shiny twenty-somethings born in that nigh-on 16 year period Doctor Who wasn't on TV, and a lot are involved in media or social media. Apparently, their taking over has caused a rash of negative comments online, which then prompted a backlash from other commentators accusing the first set of commentators of being intolerant, against diversity, etc. I say 'apparently' because I only saw the second wave, not the first. This was the same with Jodie W's casting - I only saw the complaints about the sexist comments, I didn't see any negativity first hand (at least until the negative tweets were compiled for me by various news outlets in that instance).

I don't doubt there were some bad comments from older fans about the new time team, but I'd guess not enough to warrant the somewhat defensive reaction. My own first thought was representative of neither of those polar opposites: I was confused wondering where the last time team had left off. I was sure they hadn't reached any point of conclusion (the new team is not picking up where they left off), and there was no proper goodbye. Flicking through my old DWMs, it seems the last story they covered was Matthew Graham's Ganger 2-parter from 2011 earlier this year. So, it seems clear that theirs was not a planned exit, and this new team and approach is another impact of the editorial changes that have been happening at Panini Towers recently. I scrutinised the photo of the new crew, and they did look very young; but, the previous time teams started off fresh-faced too and that bothered nobody. They've increased ethnic and gender diversity, which is good, but they've dispensed with even having a token slightly older-looking bloke as a reader-identification figure for grey-hairs such as what I am. Mind you, I often didn't agree with those particular individuals' opinions anyway. But, I admit, I still felt uneasy. Then, it hit me as to why: it wasn't that they looked young or diverse, it was that they looked cool. They didn't look like geeks at all; or, if they did, a twenty-something geek is a cool look these days.


No popular media magazine aims exclusively at an uncool ageing demographic, of course (except Mojo, perhaps), but I am startled to be increasingly finding Doctor Who Magazine covers less and less that is relevant to me, and represents a fandom that differs wildly from my experience of it. No-one wants to feel their favourite thing is growing away from them, which might explain any knee-jerk comments made when the new time team was announced. My guess is, though, that the number of confident young cosplaying media-savvy creative fans is in the same proportion as it ever was to the rest of us. And that there is, and always will be, a large number of middle-aged pale gentlemen who just collect Doctor Who stuff and watch the shows. It's just the cool kids' time in the sun right now, and there's nothing wrong with that. If I'm wrong, and they are taking over the fan gene pool, then that's okay too. The Brain of Morbius's key theme - without ageing and death there is no progress - would seem to be apposite here, and I'm okay with being increasingly irrelevant. Hold on, though: the new time team format seems familiar, doesn't it? Random episodes selected, with maybe only a tangential thematic link between the stories, and not watched in order? That's the whole point of this blog. Maybe I have been a trail-blazer after all.

In Summary:
Don't be in two minds about it: it's a fun pastiche.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Listen


Chapter The 84th, where it all turns out not to have been a dream.

Plot: 
Clara has a disastrous first date with Danny Pink. The Doctor meanwhile has a few bats in his cloister room, obsessing with a paranoid theory that there are creatures who have evolved to be great at hiding, who are somewhere behind us whenever we think we're alone, or whenever we talk to ourselves. To investigate, he gets Clara to engage directly with the telepathic circuits of the TARDIS. They are subsequently taken to a night in Danny's and then the Doctor's childhood; in both instances, Clara clumsily imprints future events on their impressionable minds; in between, they go into the far future and meet a relative of Danny's - Orson Pink - a stranded time travel pioneer from 100 years after Clara's time, and rescue him. In all these thematic mini-adventures, the Doctor just narrowly misses out on getting any evidence either way as to whether these hiding creatures exist or not. But everyone learns that fear is nothing to be afraid of, or something like that, and Danny and Clara agree to go on a second date.

Context:
I had been trying to get some enthusiasm going for anyone in the family to watch another Doctor Who with me, but nobody was biting. The random number generator fell upon this single episode 45-minuter, so I thought I'd have a beer and watch it on my own one evening, then blog it quickly; hopefully, this would fill the gap while the family came round. While I was watching, though, I found I was distracted, and my own enthusiasm was waning. Maybe it was the beer, but somewhere around the Orson Pink section, I stopped the Blu-ray playback, watching the rest the following day.

First-time round:
This episode came from a run of stories (the first six of Capaldi's first season) which I loved at the time but which I have been consistently mildly disappointed by on rewatch. It was a broadcast period when, with our kids still all quite young, the Better Half and I would watch the episode timeshifted late on the Saturday to gauge it for suitability, then show it to the little ones on Sunday morning if appropriate. Listen was one of the many that year that didn't get a sabbath screening: too unsettling for too many stretches, by far. The youngest two (boy of 8, girl of 5) still haven't seen it to this day - but, you know, I gave 'em a chance, and they'd rather watch youtube Minecrafters or endless Netflix cartoons set in American High Schools - that's their lookout.

Reaction:
I was reminded when watching Listen of a moment in the Moonlighting episode "It's a Wonderful Job", a tiny gag unconnected to the main Frank Capra pastiche plotline: Maddie Hayes' guardian angel, Albert - invisible to everyone in the office they're visiting - steals a piece of paper from someone's workspace: the poor desk jockey glances around for a moment confused before the angel puts it back again in the exact same place when their back is turned. Maddie upbraids Albert for this, complaining that this sort of thing happens to her at least three times a week. There must have been a jolt of recognition when I watched this first-time round, as I remembered it forever afterwards (I watched the DVDs a few years back, but that was the first time I'd seen the episode in question since the mid-1980s and this moment had stayed with me in between). Any time you can't find something for a second, even though it's under your nose and was there just now, is the work of a mischievous angel; it's rather neat.

What such moments aren't though, what they can't be, is the work of creatures who've evolved into perfect hiders. Perfect hiders would not move your chalk for a laugh; if they did, they'd be more likely to get found and killed before siring offspring; the 'having a laugh with the chalk' mutation would die out in a generation, not threatening the gene pool of the rest of the invisible species. And they certainly wouldn't write gnomic messages on the blackboards of grumpy Time Lords; camouflaged creatures in the wild don't break cover to scrawl "Look out" or "Wooooo!" on blackboards - they'd get eaten by a lion if they did. So, the whole concept of the episode, the "is it or isn't it?" ambiguity, is just another will-'o-the wisp that isn't really there: there's only one set of explanations for the events we see unfold - it's the Doctor's handwriting, it's a kid underneath the bedspread, it's pressure changes outside the ship. The story's only exactly half as clever as it thinks it is.

The half that's left is a series of vignettes thematically linked by fear, which work for the most part as the writing and direction is very good at creeping us out; the moments of anticipation and dread are great. It's not deep, though, and it's trying so hard to be; as such, it would seem to have failed on its own terms. Fear is a very broad and diffuse theme to pull everything together satisfactorily, and it therefore ends up feeling bitty. There's supposed to be a rousing significance to the barn where the last sequence plays out being the same barn John Hurt goes at his lowest ebb in The Day of The Doctor. Though it's nice enough to see the old fellah in a spliced-in clip, the moment is pretty meaningless - it's just a barn.

That whole bit is problematical, anyway: we're expected to believe Clara creates the dream the Doctor's obsessing about in the present by grabbing his leg from under his bed in his past, in paradox-tastic stylee. But the kid wasn't asleep, he was awake and crying. There is no way that a child that's awake getting his leg grabbed by a stranger under his bed just lies back down and thinks it's all a dream; plus, this is not just any kid but a clever Time Tweenager, lest we forget. A weird woman is thereafter stroking his head and quoting William Hartnell lines - he'd scream the bloody barn down. None of this explains either why lots of other people though history have had this particular dream (I never have though, nor have I heard of it before or since this episode - is it really a thing?). Add to this the Orson Pink part being structured around Clara and Danny getting together (how else can he have a time-traveller for a great great grandmother when he's a pioneer time-traveller in an experimental vessel?) only for this to be rudely contradicted in a few episodes time in the same season; one gets the impression that this story is - as possibly are all Moffat's stories in this year - speed-written last minute material being thrown together on the fly. At least there was a significant effort to do something original this time out, though; that's got to be a good thing. 

Connectivity: 
Neither The Enemy of the World nor Listen feature a monster (probably), and they both contain globe-trotting scale being provided by judicious deployment of stock footage (the more modern episode in the sequence where Doctor Who visits various nature documentaries, the older with its various shots of volcanoes from different distances being visible to one pair of binoculars). Additionally, both contain a lookalike character (Orson is the dead spit of his great-great-relative Danny).

Deeper Thoughts:
I was going to resist a punning title like Loose Canon or Spiking the Canon or somesuch, but how about "Don't Apocrypha Me, Argentina". Any good? The story Listen containing a scene showing the Doctor as a child made some people online very unhappy, but it was broadcast on BBC television with the Doctor Who title sequence on a Saturday, so they couldn't pretend it didn't happen. For that is the ultimate definition of canon, ain't it? It's the stuff you can't wish away, even if you'd like to try. For the uninitiated, Doctor Who "canon" and discussions on the topic are an attempt to bring a literary or theological approach to bear on the many different and sometimes contradictory stories told using the Doctor Who characters and concepts in multiple media, to work out which link up to form the unassailable true text, and which are apocrypha; also, it's a way to continue online arguments at the point where people have got tired of bitching about Sylvester McCoy or Colin Baker, or whether Sara Kingdom counts as a companion or not.

So, what is the Doctor Who canon? Though some people include official tie-in books (both novelisations and original works), or audio adventures, or comic strips, the absolute base position for canonical Time Lord adventures - which very few would disagree with - is the broadcast shows which went out titled Doctor Who on the telly box, starting with An Unearthly Child, all the way up to The Ruined Christmas (working title for Twice Upon a Time... or I may be fibbing). Yes, there are a few crazies who ignore anything from 2005 onwards, and a few more who don't even consider Paul McGann as 'counting', but for most fans that's at the very least the starting point.

This still leaves a few head-scratchers, though. What about Shada? It was never broadcast, and some of the material was subsequently re-purposed in another story, which makes it difficult (but not impossible) to consider as a piece in its own right. So, we don't count that. What about K9 and Company, the pedigree spin-off pilot that never went to series for some reason? A BBC broadcast, but not under the Doctor Who title. If we don't count it, how do we reconcile that Sarah-Jane now has K9 as her pal in the Five Doctors a couple of years later? But if we open the floodgates to one spin-off, then suddenly there's Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures and Class to consider. So, forget them - think of them as backstory, we don't need to have it all spelt out in the main piece. Alternatively, just imagine that Sarah-Jane and K9 being together was the result of a bit of wife-swapping with Harry and Romana.

Do we have to include Dimensions in Time, the two-part Eastenders crossover skit from 1993? It was broadcast on the BBC under the Doctor Who title with its beginning credits sequence. Yes, it was scheduled as part of a telethon rather than in its own right, but then so was The Five Doctors. Most people will jump through sufficient mental hoops to include The Five Doctors but not include Dimensions in Time, because Dimensions in Time is so shit. But does that make it right? What about The Night of the Doctor, continuity bridge between Paul McGann and John Hurt's Doctor with a regeneration and everything? It has a nice Doctor Who beginning sequence, but was an online-only thing; online and broadcast are barely different any more, mind, so should that make any difference?

The Night of the Doctor led to Karn - the planet where it was set, first visited by Tom Baker's Doctor - returning to Doctor Who (in multiple episodes of the 9th season in 2015). When it first arrived on our screens in the 1970s, Karn was a few lumps of polystyrene in a studio, since then it's become a rather grand rocky location. If we can successfully keep both versions of this world in our head and happily accept that they're the same place, then I guess we can imagine canon to be whatever we want it to be. Now, I know this doesn't actually provide any concrete answers to the dramatic question posed, but then neither did Listen, so I don't see why I should feel guilty about it. Till next time...

In Summary:
The Moonlighting episode is much better.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The Enemy of the World

Chapter The 83rd, populist would-be dictators squabble for power in a tale set in 2018: surely some mistake...

Plot: 
The Doctor, Jamie and Victoria land on a chilly beach in Littlehampton, Australia, and are attacked by a group of people who mistake the Doctor for someone else. The TARDIS crew then get rescued by Astrid, an Avenger (the Steed and Peel kind rather than the Ant Man kind), and brought to meet a suspicious character called Giles Kent. Kent and Astrid explain that the Doctor is the dead spit of Salamander, who runs a research centre that controls weather to help crops or some such. They think Salamander is positioning himself as world ruler by causing earthquakes and other natural disasters to undermine other powers. They want the Doctor to take Salamander's place, but the Doctor - concerned that he's being manipulated - demands evidence. So, Jamie, Victoria and Astrid infiltrate Salamander's staff during his visit to Europe. They find out he is planning to kill the European leader, but Jamie and Victoria get found out, and the assassination takes place successfully.

The Doctor has no choice but to impersonate Salamander to rescue his friends from the research centre back in Australia where they've been taken. There, it is revealed that Salamander has kept a group of people underground who think a nuclear war is raging above. It is these people who are creating the natural disasters, under Salamander's instruction, to fight back against the supposed warmongers above. Astrid and the Doctor rescue (most of) these underground dwellers, who reveal that Giles Kent was involved with Salamander at the very beginning and helped trick them. Kent is killed, but Salamander very nearly tricks Jamie and Victoria into believing he's the Doctor. Luckily, the real one arrives in time, and the two lookalikes tussle as the TARDIS takes off...

Context:
Random selection has been momentarily suspended to take in a new DVD release. The Enemy of the World came out towards the end of March this year in special edition with better restoration and new extras. Myself and the Better Half watched the story, an episode a night over the course of a week, on a laptop in bed just before turning in. This meant that I saw nothing of the improved picture quality, but never mind - I'm sure I'll watch it again on a proper screen soon. When the bare bones release of the DVD came out in November 2013, the Better Half can't have watched beyond the first few episodes, as everything from the reveal of the underground group in their kimono-style PJs was new to her. 

First-time round:
The third episode, the only one known to exist for many years, was first made commercially available on The Hartnell Years, one of the piss-poor VHS compendiums made by John Nathan-Turner in the early 1990s as a showcase for orphaned episodes. In fact, scratch that: for what they intended to do - give John Nathan-Turner a chance to produce something for an appreciative audience again - the Years tapes were perfect, and the audience (including yours truly) did appreciate them. The episodes within, though, being used as fodder for the showbizzy appreciation of an actor rather than for any more story-based purpose, were deprived of context. Not being familiar with the plot of Enemy, I imagined after multiple rewatches of episode 3 that it was about the comic adventures of Jamie and Victoria alongside Griffin the Chef.

I was very surprised when finally experiencing the whole story that Griffin and his cooking and whinging don't appear anywhere else; the third episode as a whole is atypical, padded as it is with this lighter material. This revelation would have come early in the 2000s, when the narrated audio version came out. But more surprises were to come: in Autumn 2013, a rumour murmured around online that a significant number of previously lost Doctor Who episodes had been discovered; things got inflated in the whispered retelling such that some people thought every episode was going to be returned. When it was eventually announced officially, it was nine episodes that had been found: still a monumental haul, but a disappointment after the madness. Some people are still convinced the rest are being held back for slow release bit by bit over the years, but it's been nearly five years now, so they're likely to be wrong about that.

Anyway, five of the returned episodes were the missing ones from Enemy, completing the story; the others were four of the five missing episodes of the following story The Web of Fear, and both stories were released on itunes at midnight of a day early in November 2013. I stayed up, even though I had work the next day as I remember, and was faced with all the quandaries that wouldn't occur to normal people: do I watch Web first, even though that's out of order, because it's the better serial? And if I do, do I skip episode 1, as it had existed in the archives for ages and I'd seen it loads of times? If I do watch Enemy first, do I skip episode 3, depriving myself of the whole experience, but skipping the most boring episode, which had also existed in the archives for ages and which I'd seen loads of times? I finally decided on the sort of compromise that would please nobody and will make anyone reading this think I'm crazy: I watched episode 1 and 2 of Enemy, then episode 2 of Web, then went to bed, and watched everything again from the start the following day.

Reaction:
I can't help but think that at some point during rehearsals for this story, the recently and sadly departed Debbie Watling turned to Frazer Hines and whispered to him of Patrick Troughton's Mexican accent for Salamander "He's not doing that voice in the real thing, is he?!". In fact, I'm convinced it must have happened to the extent that I'm wondering if it's a real interview with her that I'm half-remembering (a quick Google has not found anything). If it didn't happen, it should have. Troughton was one of the best character actors on TV at the time, but he's manifestly hamming it up as his naughty alter-ego. An outrageously accented take of "But we wouldn't wanna put it to the test, eh?" has become a catchphrase for both me and the Better Half, trying to make the other laugh, since watching the DVD. The Trout clearly wasn't in any hurry to seriously show off his range, but he must have been desperate to have some fun. And, to be fair, it's pretty fun for those of us watching too.

The loss of the story's episodes for so many years has had the opposite effect that it did to a story like Tomb of the Cybermen. That story, wholly missing until 1992, was lauded during its absence as a masterpiece; once recovered, it couldn't ever quite live up to is reputation. Enemy, on the other hand, was perhaps unjustly dismissed while it was mostly gone, based on the remaining episode being largely padding, and based on the story being an oddity from its inception - a sci-fi spy story in a year of monster mashes. Such low expectations meant it couldn't do anything but impress once brought back into the light, and dodgy accents could happily be overlooked. It doesn't ever reach soaring heights, but it's solid: every episode - even the third when seen in context - is a ripping good yarn, furthering the overall story with some nice moments and characters.

Some commentators have called it pseudo science fiction - i.e. a sci-fi veneer on top of the court intrigue, food taster and all, of a historical Doctor Who plot (a type of story that writer David Whitaker had experience with, but which had fallen out of favour by this period of Doctor Who's production). But this is a misunderstanding of how both Doctor Who and stories work. Historical or present day or alien planet, these are locales rather than genres. Even science fiction is a supra-genre, and doesn't dictate any story structure for the tales told within it. The Enemy of the World, with lip service paid to the sort of weather control technology that fixated the writers throughout the latter years of the 1960s, is arguably more science fiction than quite a few of the other tales from this season, whose baddies may as well be supernatural for all the difference it makes to the adventure runarounds of which they were part. This pseudo science fiction theory is just more baggage from the period when Enemy was lost and unloved.

With gunfights, hovercrafts and exploding helicopters within the first few minutes, it out-Pertwees a lot of Jon Pertwee stories; the link is of course Barry Letts, producer for most of Pertwee's era, and directing his first ever Doctor Who story here. He was pushing the envelope with what could be done in the studio: the scene with back projection to grant verisimilitude to an interior version of a park, for example, foreshadows his intensive use of green-screen backdrops in the colour era. Letts has expressed frustration with the Enemy scripts over the years since this Who debut, but I think that mostly stemmed from their being very late coming in, which necessitated a lot of on-the-fly work to keep the production in shape.

The content itself is politically and emotionally literate, with opportunities for all the cast to shine, particularly the major female guest characters, Astrid and Fariah. This came a little at the expense of the companion regulars, particularly in the later episodes. Mary Peach, a very big name at the time, was cast as Astrid before the final episodes - which initially omitted her character - were written. When she was reinstated, she presumably took action that Jamie and Victoria would have had; this, plus their absence on holiday for episode 4, means all they get to do of note is joke about in a kitchen. They do better, though, than poor Colin and Mary, the weak links of the guest cast. There's some problems with their scripting, but it's mainly down to the performances, which are one-note and flat. It is isn't therefore much of a problem to the audience that their fate is so abrupt and unclear: there's a brief, inconclusive insert of them in the blow-up at the end, but thereafter no other shots, and nobody mentions them again either to celebrate or to grieve. 

Connectivity: 
Both The Enemy of the World and Rose feature a secret underground base and a sympathetic character with a secret file who gets killed partway through (Fariah, Clive). At a push, they also both include a doppelgänger character, though one is made of plastic rather than made of massive coincidence.

Deeper Thoughts:
Collector Mania. I was a bit surprised to see a special edition version of the Enemy of the World DVD come out at all. When this blog started in Spring 2015, the classic Who DVD range seemed near death, with only one extant episode remaining in the archives unreleased on shiny disc; the team that had restored the episodes and created extras for the discs (including the story with that final ep, The Underwater Menace) had disbanded and moved on to other things. When the Underwater Menace DVD was finally for sale, I assumed  - and went on at length bemoaning the fact - that this was the end of my 30 years collecting Doctor Who in audiovisual form. I think I did protest too much. In the end, the two animation-assisted classic Who stories, Power of the Daleks and Shada, which came out once a year after that point, reignited the range. Not only is there this special edition of Enemy, including new extras worked on by that restored old team that they didn't have time for when it was first released, they're also upscaling a whole season (Tom Baker's first) for release later in the year as a box-set on Blu-Ray.

There's only Doctor Who story broadcast before 2009 that can be released at true Blu-Ray quality, and that's Spearhead from Space (as it was recorded wholly on 16mm film, which contains enough picture information for high definition). I bought that one. Everything else, though it will look a bit better than DVD, hasn't seemed worth my buying again thus far. I have resisted purchasing the Paul McGann TV movie, and any of the four early post-2005 series when re-released on Blu. But, am I kidding myself that these decisions are being made in any rational way? I was similarly dismissive of the Tom Baker box-set until I saw that it included the full version of the Tom Baker Years tape from the early 1990s - you know, his entry in the range which I described as "piss-poor" above - then I had to have it and promptly pre-ordered. Old episodes without much quality improvement is one thing, but if they're accompanied by naff but nostalgic extras, I'm onboard. It's not exactly a rational internal bargaining process I'm undergoing, but it's not 100% obsessive compulsive either.

Do I sometimes have pangs of angst that I don't own that Paul McGann TV movie Blu-Ray? Of course. Does my heart sink a little at having to wade through a season of Doctor Who in yet another medium plus all those extras, and pay for the privilege? Yes. Will I still go ahead and buy it? I'd be lying if I said not. There's new Target books coming out now as well: am I expected (expected only by myself, or course) to buy and read all those too? This is the curse of the collector - you want to collect everything, but you don't want to have collected everything. The Doctor Who fan also has to contend with the sheer volume of product. Even the most ardent completist wouldn't have time to read / watch / listen to it all. There aren't enough days in the year. So, even if everything was bought, it would just fill a house and then sit gathering dust and regret. Reading between the lines of my blog post from 2015, there's a lot of sadness at the possibility that the 30-year journey was over, but more than a little relief also.

I don't want to be an armchair therapist, even of myself, but it's clear there's symptoms of various spectrum disorders being demonstrated here. Whether that's accurate or not, there's something; but, I couldn't honestly say it was something that has had a wholly or even mostly negative impact on my life. For all the pangs of angst, there's been many more doses of endorphins and dopamine. And there's surely many worse things one could do with one's money or time. To quote a few of my favourite lines from Doctor Who non-fiction writing - from Chris Howarth and Steve Lyons' The Completely Useless Encyclopedia - “Doctor Who was created to entertain, coins to formalise a system of barter, trains as a method of transport, and stamps as a means of funding the postal service. People find entertainment in all four. Which is most understandable?”

In Summary:
Solid, occasionally stolid, but much better than episode 3 in isolation led us to believe.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Rose


Chapter The 82nd, in which a TV programme comes back from the dead at Easter-time.

Plot: 
Late one evening after the end of her shift at a department store in London, Rose Tyler goes down to the basement to deliver the staff syndicate's lottery money to the Chief Electrician, Wilson. As she walks around, the shop window dummies in storage down there come to life around her. Backed into a corner, she is surrounded and they come in for the kill. A Manc fellah in a leather jacket saves her just in time, and they escape in a lift. He blows up the roof of the building just after she gets clear. Before disappearing off, he introduces himself as 'the Doctor' and explains that the dummies are living plastic, brought to life by an alien intelligence transmitting a signal. The Doctor then turns up at Rose's house the next day, trying to track the signal. Rose presses him for answers, but he isn't forthcoming, and goes off again, seemingly into a mysterious disappearing big blue box.

Intrigued, Rose researches on the internet, and meets up with a conspiracy theorist, Clive, who has been combing history for signs of the Doctor, and believes him to be an immortal alien who brings death in his wake. Rose's boyfriend Mickey waits outside Clive's house in case Rose is in any danger from this man she met on the internet, but the plastic wheelie bin nearby has been taken over, and swallows him up. He's replaced by a slightly unconvincing plastic duplicate, who questions Rose about the Doctor later when they're out for dinner. But the Doctor has tracked them to the restaurant and rescues Rose when plastic-Mickey starts smashing the place up. They escape into the blue box (called the TARDIS) which is bigger on the inside than the out, and the Manc fellah turns out to be a space-wizard, and grumpy to boot.

Tracking the source of the signal to an underground chamber beneath the London Eye, the Doctor and Rose rescue the real Mickey. The Doctor confronts the Nestene Consciousness - a big vat of talking gloop - but is captured, and a signal is sent using the Eye's structure as a transmitter. All over London, shop window dummies come to life, and attack people including Rose's Mum Jackie, who survives, and Clive, who is killed. Rose uses her childhood gymnastics skills to swing on a chain,  knock over a couple of dummies and free the Doctor; in the confusion, the Consciousness gets destroyed, the signal cuts out, and the mannequins become inanimate once again. The Doctor invites Rose (but not Mickey) to travel with him; she hesitates at first, but on the second offer runs into the TARDIS leaving Mickey behind.

Context:
The random number generator method used to select which story to watch next for the blog settled on Rose, an intriguing choice with lots of associations; this was good, as I'd been busy and it had therefore taken me ages to write up the last story for the blog; something to inspire me to write with more efficacy was to be welcomed. I also happily realised it was a perfect blog post to publish during an Easter weekend, it being the biggest episode ever broadcast at Easter, and one that started a tradition that lasted for a good few years afterwards that the kick off of a new run of episodes should debut on the Saturday following Good Friday. This in turn reminded me that in the year when Rose first aired, that Saturday had also fallen towards the end of March. It then dawned on me that the 13th anniversary of that historic broadcast was the very day on which I was having all these thoughts, the 26th of March, and if we started watching in the next few minutes it would be bang on to the exact minute. Hurry, hurry.

As it was, it took a while to gather the interested parties together in the living room, and we started at 7.08pm, eight minutes later than Rose had started in 2005. Close enough, unless you're some weirdo obsessive about these things (hush). Anyway, the interested parties in question were all the kids (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5) and the Better Half who, hearing the urgent preparations, joined us as the title sequence was rolling. We watched from the DVD, and there was a lot of visible evidence that it was doing what it was supposed to do: the youngest was scared by the quiet bits, the middle child was jumping up and down during the exciting bits, and even the cynical eldest pre-teen said "this is the Doctor I like the best", only to be corrected by his sister: "He's not called the Doctor, he's called Doctor Who". Based on the credits of Eccleston's era at least, this was quite accurate of her. The eldest was also taken by Clive's son when he said "Dad, it's one of your nutters". There's clearly something in the story for everybody!


First-time round:
There was immense build up of interest before Rose's initial BBC1 broadcast. It is mirrored somewhat by what's happening now in anticipation of Jodie Whittaker's debut series, with little teasers (new logo, hero images, snatches of audio) released months before the really big marketing push. When things really got going in 2005, it was verging on the ridiculous - stupid great billboard advertisements, talking points on review shows, special edition Mastermind tie-in episode. I wonder what sort of hoop-la we'll see this Autumn. Things peaked when Rose was leaked early in March, a little under three weeks before it was due for transmission. I read about the leak, but resolved to be strong. The next day, however, a colleague and friend at my day job of the time, Lee -  that guy one knows in every office who has an evangelical belief that copyright is an affront to personal liberties - came in and handed me a DVD-R, then walked away without a word. I was not strong enough to resist, and started watching it on my laptop during the working day. In the evening at home, I showed it to the Better Half, and rewatched it again more than once before the Easter weekend.

I saw the live broadcast with the Better Half, my sister and her partner James, in my sister's old flat in Worthing. My sister, never the biggest Doctor Who fan, was hosting us with such enthusiasm, even down to providing bowls of jelly babies, that I couldn't bring myself to tell her that I'd already watched the story multiple times. I don't regret it, though; the version I saw first didn't have an audio interruption from Graham Norton spoiling the most tense bit.

At the time, the BH and I were living in Kent, so had to stay over; I went out in Worthing early afternoon on Saturday 26th March 2005 as I needed to buy something, rushing as I didn't want to risk missing a minute of the pre-match build up including that Doctor Who: The New Dimension show narrated by David Tennant (whatever happened to him?). While I was out, I saw the front cover of a red-top rag, I forget which, bigging up the competition for Saturday night audience between Who and Ant and Dec. I had a sinking feeling: what if it bombs?! Luckily, the ratings revealed the next day were stratospheric; they didn't quite sustain at that level, so there must have been many curious souls in Rose's audience that decided it wasn't for them. One of these was my university friend Mark - the least enthusiastic whenever we had a video watching session in Durham - who texted me at 7.45pm on that Saturday to say "It's still shit".

Reaction:
There's only one way I think one could be disappointed by the story Rose, and that's by stubbornly assuming its plot is supposed to be about Autons, which it clearly isn't, and thereby accusing it of having a thin plot, which it doesn't. Just look at the synopsis above - there's lots of story beats, they're just not centered on defeating aliens. Sure, anyone can dislike the show because of its tone, or production values, or the performances of the leads. But if you disagree with the plot being structured around the person with an ordinary life getting pulled into the mysterious stranger's orbit (or 'turning Doctor Who into a soap', as it was called by online crazies ad nauseum) then you have to seriously think about what would have happened had it been done differently. This outside-in approach is the only viable option to bring the show to a new audience. It's how it was done successfully in 1963, and the opposite of how it was done unsuccessfully in 1996. Paul McGann's TV movie is the epitome of an inside-out approach: start with the Doctor rather that the audience identification figure, alienate some of your viewers, and add swathes of narration to paper over the cracks. Avoiding this is a big reason the show is still running to this day, allowing many different types of story to be told, including many big 'defeat the aliens' plots for traditionalists (though not ever a proper rematch with the Autons, curiously enough).

I never understood the soap opera accusations at all. It's not exactly brutal realism, nor even a misery-fest confection like Eastenders (the comparison most often made by the online crazies). All the tourist biscuit tin shots of red buses and the houses of parliament clue us in that we're watching a somewhat heightened version of reality. I miss this bright, fun adventure look and feel, which has got progressively gloomier over recent years of Who's new episodes. What I feel many don't like, but can't bring themselves to say, is that Rose, Jackie and Mickey are common - if they were realistic and the centre of the narrative, but were middle class professionals (like Sarah Jane Smith) I think some people would have less of a problem with it. But never mind those people - it's all about the characters, and these characters are great.

Like many of the stories in the 2005 run, all the surrounding spectacle belies the deliberately small nature of the story. There are only five significant roles in this piece - the two regulars, the two semi-regulars, and a nice guest performance by Mark Benton as Clive - and their interactions drive the story forward. All five are expertly cast, and perfectly performed. Noel Clarke has been harsh in reflecting back on his choices in these early episodes, but as part of his overall arc throughout the season, I can't fault his work here. Camille Coduri gets the best lines: "Skin like an old bible", "I know she is Greek, but that's not the point" and so on. Her brief scene with the Doctor in her bedroom was the funniest thing there'd been in Doctor Who up to that point. Eccleston and Piper are so good, I can't really express it without being dull, they are too good if anything; while not looking like as well-matched pairing as, say, Tennant and Piper, they have bags more chemistry. They are another two big reasons why Doctor Who took off again.

It's not quite all there from day one. The music is not yet enhanced by real recorded orchestral parts, it's all synthesised, and now sounds a little tinny and cheap in comparison to what came later. There's a few parts where they haven't quite got the tone exactly right, but they're brief, a few seconds of the running time in all, and the show would get better very quickly at this. Piper's treatment of Mickey at the end jars a little, but not as much as it did first time I watched. It's not exactly subtly expressed that Mickey is not a good boyfriend, and Davies has gone on record of not wanting Rose to be too perfect, but her kiss off line is just the wrong side of cruel for me. When it comes together, though, it's magic. There's one glorious moment, a tiny thing that you could blink and miss: just after the plastic Mickey's head's been pulled off and the male diner has screamed, there's a look on Eccleston's face of madcap joy, like he adores the chaos all around him.

One other thing I noticed this time, because I'd so recently watched the first first episode of Doctor Who, was the parallels between the debut deaths in the twentieth and twenty-first century versions: Old Mother and Clive are both prophets of doom, and probably the wisest non-Gallifreyans to appear in their respective stories; they try to warn other characters in the narrative that they're in danger, but in the end it's they who come a cropper. It's an interestingly bleak theme of Doctor Who that might be inadvertent here, but is picked up deliberately elsewhere too: you can be as clever as you want, but without the Doctor, you'll never be safe.

Connectivity: 
Both Rose and The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky are Russell T Davies era earth-based stories involving invasions by slightly reworked monsters from the original series. In both, the Doctor confronts the aliens at the end with a MacGuffin device that will destroy them, but won't activate it until he's given them a chance. In both instances, he can't bring himself to do it, and someone else has to intervene.

Deeper Thoughts:
Who Knows Part Three. Well, a few weeks back I'd have said that another of those mysteries of Doctor Who to which we might never get answers was what exactly happened between Christopher Eccleston and the production team in the early days of filming the return series of Doctor Who. But he's only gone and spoken about it, thirteen years on. He must have finally got frustrated with people asking him over and over and/or thought that, as so much time has passed, he could share some details. From small comments made in the intervening years by many parties involved, it's consistently clear that whatever happened to cause Christopher Eccleston to quit happened in the first production block (covering Rose and the two-part Slitheen story, all directed by Keith Boak). It's been hypothesised that Eccleston fell out with Boak, or producer Phil Collinson, or many other people on the senior production side; his interview suggests he fell out with all of them, including Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner. As he puts it: "They lost trust in me, and I lost faith and trust and belief in them".

Eccleston felt the weight of being the most seasoned member of the cast, yet in a role that was out of his comfort zone; the part was one he felt required "a natural light comedian" which is not how he saw himself. His resultant insecurity made it a stressful experience. From other testimonies about this time, though, it's clear nobody knew what they were doing; there was no frame of reference for making a show like Doctor Who's 2005 model, as there hadn't been anything quite like it done before, certainly not in the UK. With a lot riding on it being successful, it's not surprising everyone was stressed. There were many issues and delays; the planned schedule was clearly inadequate, as it's been reported they were something like three weeks behind after only a day of filming. This was not an atmosphere conducive to on-set harmony. But if the producers really lost faith in Eccleston's performance, as he seems to have done himself, then this viewer at least thinks they're dead wrong. If he was out of his comfort zone, he used it to spur him on to something special. It makes sense: the Doctor is a character putting on a brave face while inside he's not enjoying himself as much as he appears; that's a pretty good summary of Eccleston himself as he did it.

Where even Eccleston's acting wasn't good enough, was the publicity drive after the series had wrapped. He’d made an agreement with Davies not to damage the reputation of the series, and he did his best; but, as anyone who saw those interviews and appearances can testify, he couldn't help but come over as awkward and defensive. I hope getting the negativity off his chest in this recent interview has helped him. A good sign is that he has agreed for the first time ever to attend a sci-fi convention, with an appearance at London Film and Comic Con planned for July. It's just a shame he's charging an arm and a leg (and two hearts and a respiratory bypass system) for an autograph.


In Summary:
If the kids don't like that, then the kids don't deserve to have any television ever shown to them again.