Wednesday, 28 October 2015


Chapter The Fourteenth: Adric, we hardly knew ye.

In the year 2526, the Cybermen have (somehow) hidden a bomb in some caves on Earth, guarded by anonymous androids as the the Cybers don't want to give away their presence (they even turned down the front cover of the Radio Times to keep their plan secret). They're aiming to blow up the planet remotely once an anti-Cyberman summit of planetary leaders starts there. Unfortunately, the caves are invaded by a group of palaeontologists, then a group of troopers, and finally a group of smelly time travellers who never change their clothes. These last are the Doctor and his too many companions: Tegan, Nyssa and Adric.

The Doctor defuses the bomb, and traces the remote control signal to a space freighter on its way to Earth, where the Cyber-Leader and his squad are hiding in the hold. The Cybermen take over the freighter and aim it at the planet as a replacement for the bomb. Adric is left on board, while the others leave in the TARDIS and an escape pod. Adric manages to save the Earth by (somehow) making the freighter travel back in time 65 million years, so it's only the dinosaurs and himself who are killed. Which is a pity, as people like dinosaurs. 

Me and the kids watched the DVD over a couple of weekends: two episodes, then a week's break, then the following two. So, actually, not that much faster than it was broadcast originally (see First-time round).

When the randomiser had suggested this story, I'd ensured it was prepared correctly. Before the youngsters were in the room, the disc was already in the machine, the episode already cued up, and the box was hidden. The boys have watched pretty much every Doctor Who DVD at one time or another, but Earthshock was a long time ago and I was sure they'd forgotten the shock reveal at the end of episode 1. The Better Half was watching their faces when the Cybermen appeared, and each of the three children - boy of 9, boy of 6, and girl of 3 - was mouth agape in happy astonishment. The eldest pretended he wasn't surprised afterwards, of course. None of them were upset by Adric dying as much as they were confused that there was no music for the credits of episode 4.

First-time round: 
I first became hooked on Doctor Who watching a repeats season on BBC2 called The Five Faces of Doctor Who that ran for a few weeks before the start of Earthshock's 1982 season. So this was one of the first stories I ever watched on its original transmission. Half-watched, I should say: episodes in 1982 were - for the first time ever - moved from the traditional weekly Saturday slot to twice-weekly on Mondays and Tuesdays. And on Monday, I had cubs.

After a brief moment of hope in the first week that the Tuesday episode was a repeat from the night before (it wasn't), this scheduling quickly became a major source of conflict in my house. There'd been a long waiting list for getting me into cubs in the first place, and my Mum wasn't going to let me give it up just for a TV show. So, there were a number of sickies pulled that year. I remember having 'headaches' two Mondays running which got better just in time for me to watch the odd-numbered episodes of Kinda (my first full Doctor Who story watched 'live') but usually I had to miss at least one episode of each story. For Earthshock, that was episode 1; so, after all the effort that the producer expended to keep it a surprise, I would have only found out about the return of the Cybermen in the playground the next morning. It would have been wasted on me anyway, as I'd never seen nor heard of the Cybermen. But I was 9 years old, and they were cool silver robot men, so they anyway had me at "Destroy them, destroy them at once."

[An aside: I've told this story in my other blog, but this was the same cub pack that on one Monday night held a survey on what everyone's favourite TV programme was. There was only one vote - mine - for Doctor Who. The winner by a landslide was T.J. Hooker. T.J. Hooker? Google it, and feel sympathy for the plight of the Doctor Who fan in the 1980s.]


Eric Saward's script for Earthshock has a reputation for being one that doesn't bear close scrutiny: a string of set-pieces and shocks that hangs together sufficiently for an enjoyable initial watch, but with diminishing returns thereafter. Viewing it now for what must be at least the tenth time, though, I'm loving it as much as I ever did. Compared to most of the batshit crazy schemes the Cybermen have had over the years, their plot here is - go on, I'll say it - logical. Their costume design is the best they ever had too, and director Peter Grimwade's pushing of the envelope of multi-camera studio direction injects a much needed velocity. The need to keep intercutting causes some oddities, mind: there's three inserts in episode 1 of Adric in the TARDIS talking to himself, where surely none would have been better.

Many of the other flaws people have perceived over the years don't trouble me. It's an odd structure where the bad guys switch to a contingency plan halfway through (which happened previously this same season in Castrovalva). This is the sort of thing that would happen on Who when there were six or more episodes to fill, but it seems excessive when there's only four. They get away with it, though, as it moves so fast. The only issue is that the audience has to go through two dull sets of scenes where the guest cast distrust the Doctor before realising he's telling the truth. This is doubly annoying as the Doctor has brought with him to the freighter a plausible authority figure in Lieutenant Scott.  He might not have been much use though: his entire planet is on red alert because of a looming war with Cybermen, but he doesn't appear to know about this, and doesn't recognise a Cyberman when he sees one. Maybe he missed a memo, or maybe his squad just deals with missing persons cases.

There is no reason either why Beryl Reid couldn't or shouldn't play the hard-boiled captain of a space freighter. She gives a show-stealing turn as a world-weary spy in the BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, after all; she wasn't in any way limited to playing lovable grannies. If one's going to do it, though, it should be the point of the piece, or else it's not worth the distraction. Again, it doesn't really matter as there's so much else going on.

Earthshock was a big success, and set the template for the next few years of Doctor Who: action movies on a shoestring. It would all come crashing down eventually, but first time out it's very effective. The seeds of destruction are sown here though; there's a line Tegan has about the Doctor: "Guns are not his style at all". But this is followed about five minutes later with the Doctor picking one up and waving it around. Welcome to Saward country!

Both stories are structured around the surprise reveal of an old enemy, and contain sequences set in subterranean areas.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Surprise versus Suspense versus Mystery. In a brave move, the editor of Doctor Who Magazine has this month been tentatively critical of production and marketing decisions regarding the latest series opener. His theory is that The Magician's Apprentice might have attracted more viewers if its pre-publicity had made more of the appearance of the Daleks, made anything of the appearance of Davros, and if it hadn't had such a gnomic title. 'The Father of the Daleks' would have been my first choice. Imagine that title popping up at the end of the Christmas special. You'd want to tune in nine months later, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?! Well, I would anyway.

Why didn't this happen? A bizarre decision was made to keep Davros's return a secret, despite this being revealed within the narrative in the first scene, before the opening credits have even rolled. When the word 'Davros' is first spoken in
The Magician's Apprentice, it is a great moment; but, I know it would work just as well if you knew what was coming. I know this because I saw what was coming a mile off, as would any fan of a certain age bracket (a bracket that includes Steven Moffat and me) the minute they saw bows and arrows, gas masks and atomic weapons being used together in the same war. It's a whopping great reference to Davros's first ever story, Genesis of the Daleks, which is one of the most popular and most repeated Doctor Who stories of all time. Quite frankly, if the [spoiler] in that scene had said any other name but Davros it would have been much more of a twist.

So, why did they do an 'Earthshock' and hold back information, even though it left them with nothing but the same old same old to crow about in their pre-broadcast trailers? Lately, it seems, the people making Doctor Who are obsessed with surprise. This is why they dislike leaks and spoilers with such passion. But surprise is not the only form of dramatic tension. Screenplays tend to disseminate a fair bit of information, and - broadly, in the Robert McKee Screenwriting seminar way of looking at things - there are three ways that this can be managed: surprise is when the audience and protagonist find out the information at the same time, mystery is when the protagonist is ahead of the audience, and suspense is when the audience is ahead of the protagonist.

Mystery is great in an Agatha Christie - Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot never let anyone know until the end, however soon they twig - but can get annoying in any other genre, as we don't tend to like smart-arse protagonists playing "I know something you don't know"; so, it normally comes down in the writing to finding the best balance between suspense and surprise. Suspense is always better, in my humble opinion (and  - you know - Alfred Hitchcock's too, he swore by it - so there!). If the bomb is under the table then for goodness sake pan down and show us it ticking, don't just have a big explosion. This is really what Earthshock does: the reveal of the cybermen at the end of episode 1 is to the audience, not the Doctor, he doesn't find out for ages. Also, suspense crucially is repeatable - too much worry about someone spoiling the surprise means at some level you don't think your story bears rewatching, doesn't it?

So, maybe I shouldn't have worried too much about the disc already being in the machine, the episode already being cued up, or the box being hidden from the kids. I know who Professort Yana really is, but that doesn't stop me getting chills each time I watch and he starts looking at his pocket watch funny. I know Hamlet dies, I know what happens when Marty McFly tries to drive at 90 mph to escape his pursuers, and I know Marwood gets the lead role and has to leave London - that doesn't stop me from watching those stories again and again. Ask my poor suffering Better Half, if you don't believe me!

In Summary: 
Keep moving fast, don't dwell, and you can get away with murder.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Magician's Apprentice / The Witch's Familiar

Chapter The Thirteenth, is very nearly current, and contains Daleks and spoilers.

The Doctor has disappeared and is hiding out, avoiding adventures in a way he hasn't ever, ever done before (except for when he did it in The Snowmen, and just before The End of Time, and between The God Complex and Closing Time, and - I don't know - about a dozen times in the last few years). This is because an event has come along to make him question his morality in that rare way he did all last year, and in the 2011 series, and at the end of The Waters of Mars. Anyway, this utterly unique situation leads to Clara and Missy teaming up to save him from a trap devised by Davros and the Daleks - they want to create a new hybrid super-race of Time Daleks. It's hinted that this race was prophesied long ago on Gallifrey. They seem to have had quite a few prophecies about things on Gallifrey, which is a bid odd as they were the one people that could visit the future any time they wanted. You'd have thought they'd have popped forward to check some of this stuff out. Anyway, the Doctor turns the tables on Davros and wins. He has sonic sunglasses now too.

The whole family sat down to watch each episode time-shifted late on the following Sunday morning after broadcast. This means that, had we been part of the sample group, we would not have contributed to the overnight ratings, which have been disappointing for these first two episodes. Seeing as this is a family of five fans one of whom writes a Doctor Who blog, it's probably worth taking all those ratings scare stories with a pinch of salt. 

First-time round: 
Usually, the Better Half and I review episodes for suitability before showing the kids, but this time we didn't have an opportunity, and so took a punt - with hand hovered over the pause button as we watched, just in case anyone got distressed. This didn't happen, but middle child did need a hug when the Doctor was in peril having his regeneration energy sucked out at the end. All the kids (boys of age 9 and 6, girl aged 3) got bored and restless during the talky Doctor / Davros bits.


In the nature of brevity, I'll get straight to the point (unlike this two-parter): this is one 45-minute episode of the Doctor having a conversation with the dying Davros, and it's brilliantly played by Peter Capaldi and Julian Bleach. Everything else, good or bad, does not move the plot forward and is just spectacle to make this quiet concept seem like a big, bold season opener. The whole planes stopping in mid-air plot, and the conversation between Missy and Clara with snipers in a foreign locale: all that could be achieved by a 2 minute scene of Missy kidnapping Clara to help her. It's more than within Missy's power to do so, and all the other tedious bollocks is only necessary because she does the idiot move of putting the world on alert first. Given that the help Missy gets from Clara seems slight anyway, perhaps you don't need any of it.

Colony Sarff's transformation is a very cool visual, but the endless scenes of him floating around threatening people are completely unnecessary. He's a telegram. Once upon a time, this stuff would be done with a message appearing on the psychic paper, so we could get into the story quickly. And, as fun as the Doctor's guitar playing in the dark ages is, it again could be snipped right out and impact not a jot. Presumably, when his opponent in the axe fight turns into a Dalek slave with eye-stalk poking out of his head, he's only been recently converted since being attacked by Colony Sarff's snake. Otherwise, the Daleks and Davros have known where the Doctor is all along, and the search would be unnecessary. Adding a scene that looks like a twist but isn't patently confuses the issue.

There's loads more too: the flashback of the Doctor using his enemies energy weapons to escape, the whole "Doctor borrows Davros's chair" sequence and the subsequent gag about the only other chair on Skaro, the whole slow reveal of the planet (where else would they be - really?). All the talk about the rebuilding of Skaro is not just unnecessary but damaging as it confuses the key reveal about the nature of the sewers. Does anyone care when watching a time travel show that in an episode three years ago they showed Skaro in ruins (particularly as the more hardcore will know that twenty-seven years ago they destroyed it altogether)?

As a member of that hardcore following, I'm reminded of Terrance Dicks talking about his and Malcolm Hulke's challenge to fill 10 episodes of The War Games at the end of Patrick Troughton's tenure. They used a lot of what he called loop scenes - bits of business that take up time but loop round and leave the protagonists exactly where they were when they started. Moffat's story is mostly loop scenes. It was more enjoyable to watch than maybe it seems from what I've said above (I enjoy The War Games too), but I think it would be improved by being sorted neatly into two linked but episodic stories: a Missy Invasion episode, at the end of which the Doctor disappears off mysteriously, or even better is nabbed by the Daleks; then, the Davros/Doctor episode with Missy and Clara having to team up and infiltrate Skaro. 

Another Steven Moffat two-parter with scenes set during a war.

Deeper Thoughts: 
Work and Part-work. As I mentioned above, scare stories are circulating in the rubbish sections of the press that Doctor Who's ratings are in decline and it may be cancelled. Probably both of these points is untrue. Long-term fans have been here before, and they don't have to be that long term - I seem to remember similar stories this century even as early as 2005 and 2006; it wasn't cancelled then, and it ain't been cancelled yet. The difference though is in me. 

I just recently got a new day job, which is taking up a bit more of my time; I also have a wife and three kids who I'll never have enough time for; Doctor Who is something we share, luckily, but beyond that how much time can I really spend being obsessive about a TV show? Reading a magazine every month, writing a blog post every so often... that's probably the extent of it. But then came the part-work. Recently launched nationally to collect every month, is Doctor Who: The Complete History. Bound like a book with a spine illustration such that when you've collected them all you have a picture of all the Doctors, containing articles that go into detail about the making of every episode. It is precision-tooled to push my nerd buttons. And every day on my way to work at that new job, I've passed a newsagent which had a very prominent display of issue 1.

Every day through most of September, it looked through the glass at me. Every day, I had to be strong and remind myself I don't have the time to read anything more about Doctor Who every month if I'm ever going to get round to finishing Dombey and Son, keeping up with the news, finding out about wines, learning a foreign language, and all the other things on my list. This isn't about putting aside childish things; I don't hold with that - it's all trivia, or all important, depending on your fancy.  But I do think one needs to strike a balance. I stayed strong, and eventually the window display was gone, and The Complete History moved on to issue 2, and now I'm two-thirds of the way through Dombey and Son, thank you very much.

If Doctor Who was cancelled, I might have time for some French lessons; or at the very least I could start on Our Mutual Friend. It may not sound like a big deal to have realised this, but: I'd survive.

In Summary: 
Even parts superlative and superfluous.