Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The Doctor's Wife

Chapter The Eighteenth, the Doctor versus the Pathetic Fallacy.

The Doctor is lured to and left stranded on an asteroid in a bubble universe outside our own when a nebulous green nasty, who likes to kill Timelords, nicks his time/space craft. As part of this, the TARDIS matrix, its consciousness, has been extracted and deposited in a woman called Idris. The Doctor and this living embodiment of his ship join forces, save Amy and Rory whom the nasty and his pet green-eyed Ood have been torturing, and win. Idris dies and the TARDIS returns to normal, but just for a short while the Doctor was able to talk to his longest-running companion, or 'wife' hence the (slightly forced) title.

Watched the Blu-ray with the whole family, the kids happy it was 'a new one' for a change. Nothing much scared any of them, not even the bits that scared me (the psychological horror of House toying with Amy and Rory in the TARDIS).  Elder boy, 9 years old, realised while watching how much he's missed Matt Smith who's 'his Doctor'.

First-time round:
No clear memory of first seeing this particular episode, but almost certainly it was watched late on during the evening of the original BBC1 screening, timeshifted as the live transmission coincided with the kids' (only two of them at that point) bedtime.

This is a gem. In a year which saw the show get a little bit too wrapped up in its own mythology (not for the first or the last time) this story somehow stood head or shoulders over the others in terms of quality by… well, by being even more wrapped up in the mythology than they were. Why does it work? It must be love. Not just the soppy stuff, but that does help to give a human dimension to the story. For the pedants thinking that a human dimension has no place in the love story between a Timelord and a Gallifreyan time machine: fear of upsetting you boys was the reason that Idris’s parting “I love you” is so low in the sound mix, shame on you!

But it’s also the love that the writer has for the mythology that shines through. Neil Gaiman, the geek-lit Robert Smith, might at first glance seem too super cool and above this sort of thing, but at heart he's always been a fan writer in the best sense of the term. Consistently in his work in all genres, he revels in upending the toy-box of myths and legends, both ancient and pop, and playing with them in new ways. It's done here to great effect, but it works also because the setting and characters Gaiman creates are equal to the legends they are pitched against.

House is a fantastic creation, chillingly voiced by the always excellent Michael Sheen; those scenes of Amy and Rory at his mercy in the TARDIS corridors (ooh TARDIS corridors!) are the best moments that Gillan and Darvill shared in their time on the show. As ever, Darvill is great value at delivering a funny line. Suranne Jones is obviously wonderful as Idris, but even the less showy roles in a small cast are perfect in writing and performance, Auntie, Uncle, and Nephew, with Paul Kasey reliably delivering full-on sinister with only body language. 

Quibbles? Why start with the scene showing Idris becoming the TARDIS? Would it have been so difficult to follow what's happened without that scene? As it is, it just calls attention to the fact that there's a character we never get to mourn. And given it's the punchline of the piece, Matt Smith's line "Bigger on the inside" is a little too thrown away.

Tough one this; not much connects The Doctor's wife to The Dalek Invasion of Earth. There's a significance in both to something at the centre of a celestial body, but that's about it.

Deeper Thoughts:   
Baby Let's Play House. The first book by Neil Gaiman that I ever read, I adored; it was not Good Omens, or a Sandman graphic novel, though I came to them and enjoyed them soon after, it was Don’t Panic: The Official Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion. Neil himself started as pop-culture journo, and wrote a few non-fiction fillers before he found his way to his true i.e. fiction-based calling. It was a very good read, and spoke of a love for the referenced material, as does the Doctor’s Wife. I didn’t realise that he’d written it until much later when I knew much better who he was, and it sparked that immediate recognisable feeling that I’m sure everyone gets, an excitement that someone you like likes someone or something else you like.

Perhaps because of this, or because they have a new record out soon, I find myself thinking of the Pet Shop Boys. The only happy obsession of my life that’s come near to my fanaticism for Doctor Who is being a Pet Shop Boys fan since 1986 (I refuse to call myself a ‘Pet Head’ as some, probably Americans, do – it is the cool self-deprecating pop electronica version of Whovian).

What shapes one’s personal taste? Phaedrus, need we ask anyone to tell us these things? Why do I so very much like this thing and also this other thing? The (Dr.) Who and ver Pets don’t seem connected particularly. In fact, because I am the sort of person who likes to make lists here goes: starting with the most obvious, David Tennant took his stage surname from Neil Tennant after reading about him in Smash Hits (I like David Tennant and I liked Smash Hits – I’m getting that feeling again); Ian Levine, Doctor Who superfan and missing episode hunter but also music producer, was approached to work on It’s a Sin, and did some remixes of early Pet songs; Doctor Who is mentioned amongst many other pop culture memories in a drunken conversation recorded in the 1989 tour diary book 'Literally'; John Nathan-Turner, 1980s Who producer, lived near Neil Tennant at one point, and asked the group to remix the Doctor Who theme tune for the 1993 Children in Need 3D Who skit, Dimensions in Time, which they presumably politely refused; the Pets themselves were subject to the same 3D technique when performing a hit on the same Children in Need telethon; the title of the song Radiophonic is a homage to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; David Walliams, Kylie Minogue and Babs Windsor have worked with both institutions... and I'm out.

There may be the odd bit of trivia I've missed, but it doesn't amount to a hill of beans; so, why are they connected in my affections? Maybe it's not a trivial thing; both in their way mine the sands of human emotion and - when on form - present those blown into perfected cut-class creations. Maybe that's the connection, the true aim of the craft of writing: presenting something immediate and fantastic that can be appreciated by the audience, but still delving deep into the human condition on the sly. In other words, it's all about being bigger on the inside, isn't it?!  

In Summary:
A thing I like that clearly likes another thing I like.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Dalek Invasion of Earth


Chapter The Seventeenth, where - as a novelty - some aliens invade the Earth.

The Doctor with his first and arguably best TARDIS team, Ian, Barbara and Susan, arrive in a London of the future where the Daleks have invaded. The Daleks want to mine out the core of the planet so they can pilot the Earth anywhere in space. It isn't very clear why. Typical large scale project - delivery at all costs, but no one's thought through whether the overall aim is actually useful. Anyway, the Doctor and his friends ally themselves with some rebel humans, pit their wits against the Daleks, and defeat them. Susan falls in love, and the Doctor leaves her behind to have a new life, a home and an identity. She doesn't look 100% happy at this turn of events, it has to be said.

Watched the DVD - with original effects not the CGI alternatives, nice as they are - over a couple of weekends, again with the better half by my side, uncomplaining. The kids were slightly more interested in this than The Daemons, and stuck around for one or two whole episodes. After this, in time-honoured fashion, like generations before them, they proceeded to play Daleks for a few hours - some things are reassuringly consistent.

First-time round:
This was another of the glut of back and white stories released on VHS in the early Nineties. I remember I was already familiar with the plot from seeing the big screen remake on TV previously, but this was the first time I'd seen the original.


This is the very epitome of a solid, straight-ahead no nonsense Doctor Who adventure story.

This is a revolutionary watershed marking multiple changes in the programme's format.

Somehow it manages to be both. Looking back from now, it takes an effort to realise, as subsequently it's become the de facto story template for the series, but this is the first time that the programme has presented an alien invasion of the Earth. Up to now, Who has been a programme of exploration, whether that's exploration of another time or place, or of the idea that one's vehicle would shrink one if the doors were left open, or melt all the clocks if one of the switches jammed. Alien planets, history, 'sideways' ideas: we go to them. But in this story, for the first time ever, they're coming to us.

No wonder there was no need to do anything massively original with the invasion story, just doing one at all was so successful it changed the show forever. And that's not all. This is the moment that the Doctor becomes the hero of the show. Up to now, through the first season, there's been a gradual shift from the protagonists, and particularly the Doctor, being unwillingly involved participants just trying to work their way back to the TARDIS and escape, to actively wanting to fight whatever naughtiness they come across. This final change happens here: the TARDIS gets blocked off by a tumbled-down bridge in the first episode. So far, so season 1. But no one mentions it again, tries to get back there or clear the blockage. In episode two, the Doctor decides there's a moral imperative to defeat the Daleks, and sheds the last vestiges of the amoral anti-hero he'd been at the programme's outset.

Heroes need arch enemies, and the vacancy is neatly and forever after filled by the Daleks, who've handily been transmogrified into evil empire builders. This is just the first one of Doctor Who's many sequels, bringing back it's most successful aliens for a rematch. As such, there's some stage show misdirection retconning, and the visual ante has to be upped: forget about the fact they could only move on metal and had never left their city, look at the gorgeous location film work. And it is gorgeous: never mind the earlier scant footage of a stand-in walking along a path in The Reign of Terror, this is the first time the programme's done it with gusto.

Some of the changes that happen were forced upon the story; made at the end of the first recording block of Doctor Who, it marks the first regular cast member departure as, after a year, Carole Ann Ford had got fed up with twisting her ankle, or getting the blame for things she didn't do (check out episode one - she's threatened with a smacked bottom for bringing down the bridge onto the TARDIS, but she never even went near it!). But it works very well, gives us one of the best and oft referenced Doctor speeches ("One day I shall come back..."), neatly bookends the first set of stories, and leads in to the next.

Both stories involve digging into the ground for something that turns out to involve a spaceship. Rarely for Who, both contain alien races who have managed to successfully take over and rule the Earth.

Deeper Thoughts:   
The Daleks = the Nazis, right? “It was right there in the open what they were and what they symbolised,” says Ben Aaronovitch, in 1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS. (He’s the Who writer and Who fan one of the Aaronovitch brothers, who I always think of as a more geeky version of the Hitchenses). Perhaps not quite from the start, though. The first Dalek story is, if anything, a cold war fable, showing as it does the results long after an atomic war between two intractable power blocs. If the Daleks represent anyone at the beginning, it’s not the Nazis, or even the Ruskies, but The West. If Nation had anyone in mind, it’s the very people watching his cautionary tale, I’d say: the Dals were the less aggressive of the two sides, and only went crazed xenophobic after they mutated. The Daleks in their first story are maybe supposed to be us.

It’s this, their second story, The Dalek Invasion of Earth, where they become full-on Nazi analogues. Well, to be more accurate, they become film Nazis. And the story samples a WW2 resistance movie, filtering it through a sci-fi invasion prism. Well, that’s what I always thought, and there are some wonderful moments showing the human cost of the invasion which are clearly channelling that genre, involving as they do collaborators, black-marketeers and so on. The Daleks start to appropriate some actions from their war film villain forebears too, doing Heil Hitler salutes with their plungers as they tour London's landmarks. It becomes distasteful, though, when they directly reference the historical Nazis and their worst actions. At one point, the Daleks crow about "the Final Solution" when talking about knocking off their remaining human slaves, and that's a step too far.

The resistance in this story don't, though, act like their WW2 counterparts either in movies or reality. Things are too far gone for that, and there's no hint of any existing underground organisations or functioning foreign governments. No, it's more like the more defeated pockets of resistance found in The War of the Worlds. Just as the first Dalek story was inspired by The Time Machine, a Wells story also seems to have been a touchstone for its sequel.  As is often said of Doctor Who: all you need is an original story; it doesn't have to be your original story... 

In Summary:
Firsts among a sequel.